Called the Higgs boson, this particle — if spotted — would all but complete the fundamental theory of particle physics, known as the Standard Model. Confirmation of the Higgs would solve the mystery of why matter has the property that physicists call mass — the resistance to being shoved around.
If the Higgs does not exist, there’s a gaping hole in physicists’ explanation of nature’s deepest structure.
To search for this cosmic linchpin, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) built the biggest machine on Earth, a $10 billion circular tunnel some 17 miles long underneath the French-Swiss border called the Large Hadron Collider. Inside it, scientists smash together subatomic particles at astounding speeds. Sifting the debris offers clues as to whether the Higgs exists and what, exactly, it might look like.
On Tuesday, CERN scientists will unveil the latest results from two teams racing to spot the elusive quarry.
These new results are “sufficient to make significant progress in the search for the Higgs boson, but not enough to make any conclusive statement on the existence or non-existence of the Higgs,” read a CERN statement announcing a news conference Tuesday.
Translation: We’re inching closer, but we’re not there yet.
“We are really getting to the end of hunting for this Higgs particle,” said Jacobo Konigsberg, a physicist at the University of Florida and a member of one of the two CERN teams.
Several CERN scientists said the two teams — comprising some 6,000 scientists — have enough data to strongly hint at a Higgs boson of a certain type. But the teams do not have enough data for a conclusive discovery.
As Konigsberg rushed on Monday to finish a scientific paper describing the latest results, he admitted some fatigue. “I’m a little weary of making such a big deal about this right now. Things are not going to be so black and white,” he said. “We’re entering a fuzzy area where you see some fluctuations but you can’t yet attribute them to the birth of a new particle.”
Theories developed in the 1960s and 1970s say the Higgs boson should give rise to a force field that permeates the universe and imbues other particles — such as protons and electrons — with their mass, which is not their weight, but rather their resistance to efforts to move them.
Don Lincoln, a physicist at the Energy Department’s Fermilab in Illinois and a member of one of the two CERN teams, likened the Higgs field to a pool of water. Just as a barracuda can knife swiftly through water, some subatomic particles — such as electrons — speed through the Higgs field, giving them very little mass. Other particles — akin to blubbery whales — create more drag, making them more massive.
“It’s an important particle, because it’s not just a particle, it’s also a force field that touches every other particle,” says physicist Joe Lykken of Fermilab. Lykken, a member of one of the teams searching for the Higgs, said of recent events, “The excitement is higher than anything I’ve seen in high-energy physics in the past 20 years.”