A half-century scientific quest culminated early yesterday as physicists announced the discovery of a new subatomic particle — one theorized to be so fundamental that without it, nothing could exist.
Dubbed the Higgs boson — or the “God particle,” to the chagrin of scientists — the particle is thought to create a sort of force field that permeates the universe, imbuing everything that we can see and touch with the fundamental property known as mass.
“As a layman I now say, I think we have it,” said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, immediately after physicists presented compelling evidence for the new particle at a seminar in Geneva.
“Do you agree?” he asked the several hundred scientists packing CERN’s main auditorium.
Applause broke out. The video feed from CERN showed Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh physicist who theorized the existence of this exotic particle in 1964, tearing up.
“We have a discovery,” said Heuer. “We have discovered a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson. It’s a historic milestone today.”
The scientists at CERN then stood, applauded and cheered for a full minute.
“I have the impression you are all happy,” said Heuer.
Moments later, Higgs, 83, stood and said, “For me, it’s really an incredible thing that happened in my lifetime.”
While there were typical scientist-esque notes of caution — a CERN statement called the discovery “preliminary” — scientists around the world celebrated the moment.
A video feed from Melbourne, Australia, where an international physics conference is set to begin, showed an auditorium packed with cheering scientists.
“One of the most exciting weeks of my life,” said Joe Lykken, a theoretical physicist who worked on one of the two CERN experiments that found evidence of the new particle.
At Fermilab, longtime home of the U.S. high-energy physics community, some 300 people stuffed into two rooms to watch a video feed from Geneva, said Don Lincoln, a Fermilab physicist who contributed to the CERN experiments.
“It’s incredible,” Lincoln said. “People were riveted. Discovery is what scientists live for.”
The announcement was one many Ohio State University physicists had long pursued.
“I’ve been working for 19 years looking forward to this day,” said Stan Durkin, an OSU experimental high-energy physicist. “I can’t express how excited I am.”
The search for the Higgs boson particle stretches back decades and finally settled at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva after efforts to build a super collider in the United States fell apart. Ohio was among 25 states that bid on the project, but was quickly removed from a list of 25 competing states in 1987.
Texas was ultimately selected, but Congress put a halt to construction in 1993 after projected construction costs soared past $12 billion.
Durkin helped design and build super-sensitive detectors that the Hadron needs to track high-speed particles, called muons, created by the Hadron Collider’s subatomic collisions.
“All of the tracks in the pictures you were shown were read out by Ohio State electronics,” Durkin said.
Christopher Hill, an OSU physicist and one of the leaders of the Hadron Collider’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, said the announcement follows observations made back in December that hinted at the Higgs.
Hill said more research was needed to help confirm that a new particle had been discovered.
“We used the same exact analysis techniques, but used twice as much data,” Hill said.
Hill and Richard Hughes, another OSU physicist, said years of research must follow to help reassure scientists that what they’ve found is the Higgs and not something unexpected.
“The next step is to say we need to study this thing to see if it behaves the way we would expect it to,” Hughes said. “Is it consistent with everything we expect from the Higgs boson?”
With a self-imposed deadline of July 4 — set two years ago to align with the conference in Melbourne — CERN physicists raced in recent days to collect and analyze enough data to say they had, indeed, found a new particle that looked like the long-sought Higgs.
As late as Tuesday, two teams pored over results from the last run of high-energy subatomic collisions at the collider, which straddles the French-Swiss border.
“It’s the last month of running that did it,” said Joe Incandela, spokesman for one of the two experiments at CERN that found evidence of the Higgs, during his presentation yesteday morning.
The discovery of the particle completes what’s known as the Standard Model of particle physics, the equivalent of chemistry’s Periodic Table. The Standard Model lists and arranges the particles and forces of nature. Many of the particles were predicted long before they were found — and the Higgs was the last holdout, and the most important.
That’s because it is thought to give rise to the “Higgs field,” a sort of force field that permeates everything.
When the other particles that make up the stuff of the universe — protons, neutrons, electrons and so on — interact with the Higgs field, they acquire the trait known as mass. More-massive objects get tangled up in the field — and hence, slowed down as they move — more than less-massive objects.
The CERN physicists did not see this new particle directly because it disintegrates too quickly. Rather, they divined its existence from sifting through the debris of millions of high-energy subatomic collisions and then searching for clues that the Higgs had been there.
While the Higgs boson research hasn’t produce any direct benefits, the massive scientific effort that led up to the discovery has paid off in other ways, including the creation of the World Wide Web. CERN scientists developed it to make it easier to exchange information among each other.
The vast computing power needed to crunch all of the data produced by the atom smasher has also boosted the development of distributed — or cloud — computing, which is now making its way into mainstream services.
Advances in solar-energy capture, medical imaging and proton therapy — used in the fight against cancer — also have resulted from the work of particle physicists at CERN and elsewhere.
Information from Dispatch reporter Spencer Hunt and the Associated Press were included in this story.