What the Higgs boson discovery means for laypeople
Scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva were cheered like rock stars on July 4 when they formally announced that they had almost certainly nabbed the biggest and most elusive catch in modern physics: the Higgs boson. Dubbed the “God particle,” the Higgs boson is “the missing cornerstone of particle physics,” said CERN director Rolf Heuer. This “milestone in our understanding of nature” essentially confirms that the universe was formed the way scientists believe it was. Two teams of atom-smashing researchers at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider independently verified, with 99.99997 percent certainty, the new subatomic particle, which is a near-perfect fit for what physicists have expected of the Higgs boson since its existence was first theorized 48 years ago. “It’s the Higgs,” British physicist Jim Al-Khalili tells Reuters. “The announcement from CERN is even more definitive and clear-cut than most of us expected. Nobel prizes all round.” So what does this all mean, and where does it leave us? Here, four questions answered about the God particle:
1. Why is this such a big deal?
Finding a Higgs-like boson validates much of how scientists believe the universe was formed. The media calls the Higgs boson the God particle because, according to the theory laid out by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others in 1964, it’s the physical proof of an invisible, universe-wide field that gave mass to all matter right after the Big Bang, forcing particles to coalesce into stars, planets, and everything else. If the Higgs field, and Higgs boson, didn’t exist, the dominant Standard Model of particle physics would be wrong. “There’s no understating the significance” of this discovery, says Jeffrey Kluger at TIME. “No Higgs, no mass; no mass, no you, me, or anything else.”
2. Have they found the Higgs boson, or something else?
As momentous as this discovery is, “missing entirely from all of the high-fives and huzzahs today was a single, tiny word: ‘the,’” says TIME’s Kluger. Instead of claiming to have found “the Higgs boson,” the scientists were only willing to say they’d found “a Higgs.” That’s pretty typical of “the most skeptical profession on earth,” says Martin White at Australia’s The Conversation. But scientists have been busy on theories that “may one day supersede the Standard Model,” and many of them do “predict more than one Higgs boson,” each with different masses, energy levels, and other attributes. If this new discovery turns out to be “an exotic Higgs rather than the common garden variety,” that will be “as popular as it would be earth-shattering.”
OK, cool. But what does that mean for people who aren’t scientists?
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