Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), said another year’s worth of data needs to be compiled before anyone can reach “a definitive answer on the Shakespearean question on the Higgs: To be or not to be?”
But the scientists in Geneva were leaning in one direction Tuesday: It will eventually be. The new results suggest that something roughly 125 times the mass of a proton is being created by collisions at the LHC. It’s not definitive, and that finding could prove to be a statistical fluke — hence the cautious words by the top scientists.
The Higgs is the most sought-after particle in physics, but no one’s ever seen one, even indirectly. Elaborate theories — the orthodoxies of modern particle physics — hang in the balance.
Because it has such cosmic significance, the Higgs is often referred to in the media as “the God particle,” the title of a book by physicist Leon Lederman. Legend has it that a frustrated Lederman originally called it the “G--d---n particle.” The particle’s more orthodox name is in honor of theorist Peter Higgs, who predicted its existence in 1964.
He said the particle creates a force field that scientists believe permeates the universe and gives particles their mass — their resistance to being shoved around. Don Lincoln, a physicist at the Energy Department’s Fermilab in Illinois and a member of one of the two CERN teams, likened this force 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.
The orthodox theory of particle physics, called the Standard Model, has been exceedingly successful to date. Many particles predicted by the Standard Model have subsequently been discovered in experiments.
The Higgs is the holdout. One major problem with finding the Higgs is that it doesn’t stick around very long. It’s too ephemeral to be captured in a bottle. It (theoretically) winks into existence in high-energy collisions for a mere yoctosecond, which is one-septillionth of a second.
It then decays into less exotic particles that careen in all directions in an uncontrolled spew. The challenge for scientists is to analyze this decay pattern and look for authentic Higgs debris buried amid the subatomic wreckage. It’s like stalking a snow leopard by its footprints — after a million other big cats have tramped across the same snow field.