Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider announced yesterday that they may well have found the long-sought after Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God particle," which is the final missing part of the Standard Model of particle physics. Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs predicted the existence of the particle back in the 1960's, but he was so far ahead of the technology that it took nearly half a century to actually get the first glimpse of the thing ... except, of course, for the glimpses that are all around us, if Higgs is right.
Peter Higgs awaits word from CERN on the potential discovery of the Higgs boson
Because if he is right, then evidence of the Higgs boson is everywhere. See, the reason Peter Higgs needed to propose his theory was that the physical theories he had to work with at the time had one major flaw: they didn't explain why there was any stuff in the universe.
That's right. The very best scientific explanations that physicists could come up with had a gaping hole in the middle of them. They depicted a universe that was so elegant and finely tuned that ... it shouldn't actually have anything in it. For example, the gauge bosons that mediate the weak nuclear force (called the W boson and Z boson) should, according to theory, have absolutely no mass. But they do have mass! So Peter Higgs set out to try to explain why and how matter itself could exist, in a way that was fully consistent with all of the known laws of physics.
The result was to propose a field in empty space, a field that permeates all of space, called the Higgs field, which has the right properties needed to give mass to these particles ... and, in turn, to cause the mass of all the rest of the universe, as well.
And, in quantum physics, fields can also be expressed as particles (one of the many weird things about quantum physics), so the resulting particle was called the Higgs boson. (It was called a boson because it had a spin of 0. If it had a spin of one-half it would have been a Higgs fermion, but then it wouldn't have been able to do what it needed to do!)
As with most things in physics, that's an over-simplification of the story. It sounds like Higgs came up with the whole idea out of nowhere, and he didn't. The ideas were built on the work of others and many others came upon similar ideas at almost exactly the same time, so even calling the resulting fields and particles "Higgs" can be a controversial thing to do. Still, the fact is that he was a key player in creating the model which, over the last almost-fifty years, has been refined to explain how the symmetries of the universe are broken in the precise way that we need in order to get matter.
And that model may be about to be confirmed by experimental evidence!
Congrats to you, Peter Higgs ... and to all the other players in this drama that is theoretical physics!
- CERN press release - CERN experiments observe particle consistent with long-sought Higgs boson
- MSNBC - The Higgs boson made simple
- MSNBC - British theorist Peter Higgs lives to see his boson
- Reuters - It's a boson: Higgs quest bears new particle
- Cosmic Variance - Hunting for Higgses
- Scientific American - New Particle Resembling Long-Sought Higgs Boson Uncovered at Large Hadron Collider
- GeekDad blog - What Finding the Higgs Doesn't Mean
- GeekMom blog - What Finding the Higgs Boson Means
- PBS Nova "The Fabric of the Cosmos" video clip, featuring Peter Higgs himself - "The Higgs Particle Matters"
- PBS Nova physics blog: The Nature of Reality - The Higgs Boson Explained
- PBS Nova physics blog: The Nature of Reality (interview audio clip) - Cornering the Higgs