Hunt For The Higgs: A Bet, A Glitch, And A Gateway
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
About ten years ago British physicist Stephen Hawking was at a conference in South Korea when he made a small wager with University of Michigan physicist Gordon Kane that the long-theorized Higgs boson particle did not exist, a bet that Kane honored four years later, by sending the world renown physicist a check for $100, acknowledging that there was no Higgs.
And then, just a few years later, in 2008, when the multi-billion-dollar Large Hadron Collider went into shutdown mode for more than a year due to faulty wiring, many wondered if physicists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) really had a chance at all of confirming the existence of the elusive “God particle.”
But after Wednesday’s revelation that a new particle has been discovered by two separate teams — ATLAS and CMS — scientists around the world are tuning in to see if what was found might actually be the much searched-for Higgs boson — a particle that has been long-theorized to have existed briefly after the creation of the universe (the Big Bang).
On Thursday, a day after the unveiling at an Australian conference, the discovery is being hailed as a “gateway” to a new era that could see humanity finally unlock one of the universe’s greatest mysteries.
“This is one of the most wonderful discoveries in many, many decades in physics and tells us huge, wonderful things about the understanding of our universe,” Kane, who co-authored “The Higgs Hunter‘s Guide,” told Kim Kozlowski at DetroitNews.com, adding that this finding is “unbelievably important.”
The Higgs is the cornerstone of physics that scientists have been searching for more than 50 years. It is different than any other particle because it could explain why all the matter in the universe has mass.
“This is historic, and it’s a real tour de force for the experiments,” said Robert Harr, a professor in WSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “This particle has behaviors that are just different than anything we’ve discovered so far.”
While the results are still preliminary and it will likely be several months, if not longer, before CERN scientists can uncover the true identity of the new particle. Even so, the finding is truly significant.
CERN scientist Albert De Roeck likened it to the discovery of electricity, a time when humanity could never have imagined the future significance such a discovery would hold.
“What’s really important for the Higgs is that it explains how the world could be the way that it is in the first millionth of a second in the Big Bang,” he told AFP. “Can we apply it to something? At this moment my imagination is too small to do that.”
But scrutinizing the new particle and determining whether it supports anything other than the Standard Model would be the next move for CERN, Roeck noted.
Clarification could be expected by the beginning of 2013; but definitive proof that it fitted the Standard Model could take another two years when the LHC finally runs at exponential power, allowing for the harvest of more data.
Roeck said this might be a “little boring at the end if it turns out that this is just the Standard Model Higgs.” Instead, he is hoping it will be a “gateway or a portal to new physics” and new theories.
John Gunion, a UC Davis physicist who is not on either Higgs-hunting team, called the collider’s performance and the scientists’ discovery “a tribute to the progress of civilization.”
“We’ve reached the mountaintop, or something like that, by virtue of huge collaborations and huge technical groups that only an organized society could allow,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You couldn’t imagine getting to this fundamental level of understanding of the universe without everyone involved.”
“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” CERN Director General Rolf Heuer said in a statement. “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies … and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”
And perhaps Hawking, who acknowledges he may have now lost a $100 bet, said it best: “This is an important result and should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize … But it is a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect,” he told BBC News in an interview.