Particle physicists are usually a pretty conservative, furrow-browed bunch but last week they were doing back flips over an announcement that scientists at the Swiss-based European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) believe they have finally discovered the long sought-after ‘God’ particle.
For over 40 years it has been thought that this elusive particle gives all matter size and shape. Without upstaging that other Guy in the universe, this subatomic particle is thought to give birth to everything.
The scientific name for it is the Higgs Boson and it is a game changer in the Standard Model of physics that defines the interaction of all elementary particles like electrons, protons and muons. Until now, the Higgs Boson has been the only elusive, undetected particle but which has stubbornly been suspected to exist.
Physicists argued for decades that there had to be some kind of ‘glue’ that gave mass the basic building blocks of matter. Mass, to put it simply, is a measure of how much stuff something has. It’s what defines our physical universe and gives shape to stars, planets, trees, mountains, people, or your chocolate lab on the couch.
So here’s the scoop. In 1964, British physicist Peter Higgs had this notion that there was a subatomic particle that gave all matter mass, or substance, in terms of physical dimensions. The concept was that, fractions of a second after the Big Bang that created the universe 13.7 billion years ago, there was a gigantic explosion of massless particles and radiation energy. Some of this radiation energy congealed into a ‘field’. This field, Higgs predicted, would have a signature boson particle, one of two fundamental subatomic particles. It was tagged the Higgs Boson and it defines the field.
Now imagine this field, dubbed Higgs’ Field, as a sort of cosmic landscape of maple syrup spread throughout the universe. As the universe began to cool, those free floating massless particles zipping around at the speed of light also cooled and picked up mass from the ‘stickiness’ of the Higgs’ Field. The field is also likened to a snow field when the snow sticks to your boots, giving your boots more mass. Those skiing or snowboarding on the snow pick up less mass. As the particles accumulated mass, they slowed down then bunched up to form atoms, the building blocks of life.
Finding this new subatomic particle is pretty heady stuff for folks enclaved in a world of theory. Champagne corks probably don’t pop too often in CERN where painstaking experiments in the dimensions of the super-tiny would defy all logic to most folks.
The experiment itself is pretty dramatic. Smash beams of protons together at almost the speed of light and examine the fallout. But to find the smallest most elusive particle in the universe they needed the biggest collider in the world to do it. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider took ten years to build and it lies in a tunnel 27 kilometres in circumference 175 metres beneath the Franco-Swiss border. Ten thousand scientists, hundreds of universities and labs and 100 countries came together on this project.
Two beams of subatomic particles travel in opposite directions around the accelerator, building energy with every lap. They are finally put on a head-on collision course at very high energy. Teams of scientists then examine the soup of particles that are only created at high energy from the collision. They don’t actually see the Higgs Boson but track its fleeting tell-tale trail in the debris field using specialized detectors.
It’s still all theoretical but this is the closest they’ve come yet to ‘seeing’ this elusive God particle.
And that makes it a thumbs up moment for all furrow-browed physicists.