SCIENTISTS at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) announced yesterday that they have identified a new heavy particle with all the properties expected of the Higgs boson – first predicted to exist in the 1960s. This is not the first new particle that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern have discovered since operation began in 2009, nor (hopefully) will it be the last. So why has this result got physicists and others so excited? Why could this be one of the most significant advances in science in the last 40 years? And why did hundreds of thousands of non-scientists connect to the web (itself invented at Cern) to watch the announcement live?
The goal of particle physics is to understand the way that nature works at its most fundamental level: what are the basic building blocks of matter and how do they interact? In the 1960s and 70s, theoretical physicists developed an astoundingly successful standard model to describe everything known about fundamental particles, and the forces between them, and to make predictions that could be tested. Experimental physicists have been testing this model ever since. So far it has proved a highly accurate description of the way the universe works.
The Higgs boson was the only fundamental particle predicted by the standard model that had not been observed. If it has been discovered, it is confirmation that the theory is correct. But that is only part of the story. The Higgs boson is also a direct glimpse into the underlying structure of the theory, which other particles (like electrons or quarks) just do not provide. The work of Peter Higgs and his theoretical colleagues did far more than predict a new particle: it explained why basic forces (like electromagnetism) are the way they are, and why particles can have mass. This could be the first direct validation of our understanding of some very basic properties of the universe.
Physicists have spent 40 years looking for the Higgs boson. It was one of the main motivations for building the Large Hadron Collider. Now they must study the new particle carefully to really confirm whether its properties are those that were predicted. Any discrepancy could be the sign of a more fundamental, more powerful theory lying beyond our current understanding. The field of particle physics could be analogous to Christopher Columbus reaching America and not the Indies: instead of finishing the last chapter of the standard model, the discovery of the Higgs boson could be the opening of a whole new world for exploration.
This discovery will not bring cheaper energy or larger televisions, at least in the foreseeable future. Instead, it represents a triumph of human intelligence in understanding the secrets of nature, and demonstrates that thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from across the globe can collaborate to produce a single, significant advance in knowledge. We understand more about the universe, and perhaps our place in it, than before.
Dr Joel Goldstein is a reader in physics at the University of Bristol and the Bristol CMS group leader. http://cms.web.cern.ch