The Higgs boson — named for University of Edinburgh professor Peter Higgs, one of the six physicists who postulated the particle’s existence in 1964 — endows other basic particles, protons, neutrons, electrons, etc., with mass. Scientists compare the process of an object acquiring size and weight to passing through molasses — the “Higgs field.”
Actually proving its existence proved considerably more difficult.
The method chosen involved a 17-mile circular tunnel called the Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva. The physicists would send particles rocketing around the collider at high speeds until the particles collided, and then the scientists would study the debris for traces of the Higgs boson.
To show how painstaking this was, Joe Incandela, the American physicist who led one of the two teams, said out of some 500 trillions collisions only several dozen produced “events” that could be studied.
Advanced physics doesn’t come cheaply or easily. This discovery took two years, cost $110 billion and the work of 6,000 physicists. The scientists detected a faint glimmer of what might be the Higgs boson last winter and began honing in on the fleeting, microscopic sightings of what may or may not have been the sought-after particle.
CERN’s director, Rolf Heuer, was at first reluctant to go beyond saying they had found “a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.” But Wednesday in Geneva, he told physicists gathered there and at webcam viewing stations around the world, “I think we have it.”
This was greeted with standing ovations, but perhaps no one welcomed his announcement more than Dr. Higgs, now 83, who was there in Geneva for the celebration.
The discovery vindicated the Standard Model, the predictive theory of particle physics — but, like so many breakthroughs, it raises as many questions as it answers. As one elated scientist put it, now the fun begins.