July 4 was one of those exceptional, watershed days for physicists. Years from now, a group of lucky physicists will still smugly tell colleagues and awe-inspired students, “I was there when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.”
The rest of us will likely go, “Huh?”
You have to understand, this is a pretty big deal. Just read what someone who was there had to say about it.
“This is a really special time,” said Fermilab physicist Dan Green, a member of LHC’s CMS experiment, told Space.com Monday (July 2). “I remember when the top [quark] was discovered 20 years ago. This is one of the most exciting weeks I’ve had for a very long time.
Ok, so maybe particle physicists don’t get out much. That’s probably true of the researchers who announced their findings in Cern, Switzerland. These physicists work at Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile, or 27 kilometer, underground ring, said to be the most powerful machine on Earth. The LHC smashes protons together at incredibly high speeds, resulting in explosions of energy that transform into new and exotic particles. It was in these explosions that researchers believe they found the Higgs Boson.
To understand the weight of this discovery, it may help to know the Higgs Boson is nicknamed by the pop press as the “God Particle,” a name held in disdain by physicists for doing an injustice to theology and physics. They rather you just understood that the Higgs Boson imparts mass to all other matter in the universe, and is the final undiscovered piece of the puzzle postulated by the “Standard Model” theory of particle physics. The Higgs Boson is the glue that allows the universe taking the shape it has.
It’s that last line that makes it important. This incredibly miniscule, almost impossible to find particle without the most powerful machine on Earth (and they’re still not absolutely sure about what they found) is the thing that allows the universe to exist.
Oh, that bit about being not absolutely sure they found the Higgs Boson? Physicists won’t accept they found the elusive particle with absolute certainty unless their observations reach a statistical data level of “5 sigma,” or one in 3.5 million chance the observation isn’t real. The observations announced this week only reach a level of 4.9 sigma.
Those wacky physicists.