After decades of speculation and experimentation, physicists say they have found the “strongest indication to date” to prove the existence of the so-called “Higgs boson”–a subatomic particle so fundamental to understanding space, time, and matter that physicist Leon Lederman, author of The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? nicknamed it the “God particle.”
Scientists associated with the project are quick to acknowledge that the announcement (made in July of 2012), is not the final word–but “very close.” Based on experiments conducted at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab near Chicago, Illinois (home to an atom smasher called the “Tevatron”) and other high-tech institutions, additional experiments will be conducted at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy “particle accelerator,” built near Geneva, Switzerland.
But no matter the final result of the experiments—that the Higgs boson exists or does not—scientists consider this line of experimentation as representing a significant step forward in human knowledge. While finding the “God particle”–a task said to be more difficult than finding a friend’s face in a sports stadium filled with 100,000 people–would not be of immediate practical value, scientists point out that when the electron was first discovered in 1897, nobody guessed how it would lead to the high-tech world we have today.
In layman’s terms, different subatomic particles are responsible for giving matter different properties. Each of the particles contributes to the forces that cause all matter interactions. One of the most important–but least understood–aspects of matter is mass. Science does not yet fully understand why some particles, like photons, seem to be mass-less, while others are quantitatively massive.
The “standard model” of particle physics has long predicted the existence of an elementary particle (smaller than protons and neutrons), deemed the “Higgs boson,” thought responsible for the effect of mass. (Included in this model are: Six “flavors” of quarks: up, down, bottom, top, strange, and charm; Six types of leptons: electron, electron neutrino, muon, muon neutrino, tau, tau neutrino; Twelve gauge bosons (force carriers): the photon of electromagnetism, the three W and Z bosons of the weak force, and the eight gluons of the strong force; and The Higgs boson.)
Proof of the existence of the Higgs boson–named for English physicist Peter Higgs and first proposed in 1964–would have profound importance in particle physics because it would prove the existence of the hypothetical “Higgs field”—the simplest of several proposed mechanisms for the breaking of electroweak symmetry, and the means by which elementary particles acquire mass. (Thus, particles acquire mass by interacting with the Higgs field.) If this theory is true, a matching particle—the smallest possible excitation of the Higgs field—should also exist and be scientifically detectable–providing a crucial test of the theory. Consequently, for nearly fifty years, it has been the target of a long search in particle physics—with recent discoveries adding significant support of this theory.
Physicists say the “God particle” would help explain how we and the rest of the universe exist; why the matter created in the so-called “Big Bang” has mass and is able to coalesce. As science points out, without it, the universe would be a very different place–no ordinary matter, no chemistry, no biology, and no people.
The “God” Designation
Despite the international attention this find has garnered—in no small way due to the “God” designation (and the monumental questions about matter and life this particle may invariably answer)–Peter Higgs is not working from a “God” premise. As an avowed atheist (as are most scientists) he has made clear that despite the nickname, there isn’t really any religious intention behind the “God particle” nickname.