Scientists Say They've 'Cornered' The Elusive 'God Particle' : The Two-Way Finding the Higgs boson would confirm a key part of physics' Standard Model.
NPR logo Scientists Say They've 'Cornered' The Elusive 'God Particle'

Scientists Say They've 'Cornered' The Elusive 'God Particle'

Fermilab and the Tevatron sit in the Illinois countryside near Chicago. AP hide caption

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Fermilab and the Tevatron sit in the Illinois countryside near Chicago.


Scientists from Fermilab say they've basically "cornered" the elusive Higgs boson — that's the particle that some have nicknamed the "God Particle," because it is thought to give atoms mass and is also a key component of the Standard Model.

This is complicated stuff, of course, but essentially the scientists at Fermilab say they found a bump in their data that suggests the existence of the particle. That bump corresponds to the evidence scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have found.

Here's a bit of explanation from the Fermilab press release:

"Higgs bosons, if they exist, are short-lived and can decay in many different ways. Just as a vending machine might return the same amount of change using different combinations of coins, the Higgs can decay into different combinations of particles. Discovering the Higgs boson relies on observing a statistically significant excess of the particles into which the Higgs decays and those particles must have corresponding kinematic properties that allow for the mass of the Higgs to be reconstructed.

"'Without something like the Higgs boson giving fundamental particles mass, the whole world around us would be very different from what we see today,' said Giovanni Punzi, CDF co-spokesperson and physicist at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, or INFN, in Pisa, Italy. 'Physicists have known for a long time that the Higgs or something like it must exist, and we are eager to finally pin this phenomenon down and start learning more about it.'

"If a Higgs boson is created in a high-energy particle collision, it immediately decays into lighter more stable particles before even the world's best detectors and fastest computers can snap a picture of it. To find the Higgs boson, physicists retraced the path of these secondary particles and ruled out processes that mimic its signal."

At this point scientists are fairly certain the measurements they've taken after 500 trillion sub-atomic particle collisions are not a statistical fluke. The Christian Science Monitor reports that scientists at Fermilab outside of Chicago believe they've produced about 1,000 Higgs particles.

The Monitor reports:

"The probability that what physicists detected is not a Higgs boson and is instead a statistical fluke was 1 in 250, which is near the threshold of 1 in 740 that physics has set to establish proof of a sub-atomic particle's existence.

"The hunt for the Higgs boson is significant because it would show the existence of an invisible field thought to permeate the entire universe. The Higgs field was posited in the 1960s by British scientist Peter Higgs as the way that matter obtained mass after the universe was created during the Big Bang.

"According to the theory, it was the agent that made the stars, planets and life possible by giving mass to most elementary particles. Some gave it the nickname the 'God particle.'"

Now we've heard all this before. And, as The New York Times explains, when more data is added those "bumps" tend to go away.

But, "this is the first time in the long search for the particle that different groups, indeed different colliders, are in vague agreement."

Perhaps Dmitri Denisov, the leader of the Fermilab experiment, framed today's news best: "It is clearly not the answer to crossword, but an important piece of the puzzle!" he told the Times.