Particle physics has played out over the last half-century or so like a seasoned crime drama: scientists would use accepted theories and their deductive skills to predict whether a particle should exist, build colossal particle accelerators to find it, then catch it red-handed by smashing atoms together in a spectacular final act. For the denouement, Nobel prizes are usually awarded.
That sequence has been played out time and again, but the investigation is progressing at glacial pace in pursuit of one high-profile culprit: the Higgs boson. Long predicted as the agent responsible for bestowing some fundamental particles with mass, the Higgs would only give itself away at tremendous energies — too much for particle accelerators to produce.
Until now. Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has been consistently operating since 2009 after a botched grand opening the previous year, is theoretically capable of seeing hints of the Higgs boson, and now the rumor among the physics community is that it’s done just that. A two-part lecture scheduled for Dec. 13 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has the tantalizing title, “Update on the Standard Model Higgs searches.”
Typically, updates on the search for the Higgs are incidental, says Guardian science writer Ian Sample, given by junior members of the team. This time, however, the man in charge of one of the primary LHC experiments, Fabiola Gianotti, is leading the lecture.
The physics community has been electric with rumors about what will be discussed. Although most suspect that definitive proof of the Higgs boson won’t be forthcoming, the lecture is expected to reveal the strongest clues to date of its existence.
Recently scientists postulated that, if the Higgs exists, it would have a mass between 114 and 141 GeV (giga-electron volts). The physics blog Not Even Wrong posted rumors about that scientists had indeed found evidence of the Higgs at 125 GeV, though not enough to claim an outright discovery.
Such evidence would be very promising, though, and it’s coming unexpectedly early. The LHC is running a only about half power right now, not achieving the full power of its design until 2013. Only then may definitive proof of the Higgs be detectable.
The Higgs, it should be noted, only accounts for certain “fundamental” masses — most mass is actually generated by the energy within protons and neutrons. However, finding it would still be a momentous discovery, as it’s the last elementary particle still unaccounted for in the Standard Model, the backbone of current particle theory.
The Higgs boson is also integral to Higgs theory, first postulated by British physicist Peter Higgs, which theorizes that all of reality is connected via a field (the Higgs field), and that the particle’s interactions with it play a large part in creating that reality. The theory holds that, due to certain unique conditions at the dawn of time, the Higgs mechanism was able to create the matter and energy of the universe. Given its importance, the Higgs boson has an apt nickname: the God particle.
So this Christmas, physicists may be one step closer to God. However, it’ll still be a long wait before they actually meet him.