CERN's Large Hadron Collider Produces New Particle, But Is It the Higgs?

By Chelsea Whyte on July 4, 2012 3:43 PM EDT

ATLAS detector CERN
The ATLAS detector at CERN is one of two experiments that contributed data to the monumental discovery of a 'Higgs-like' particle. (Photo: Creative Commons: Image Editor)

Almost 50 years after the existence of the Higgs boson was first predicted, physicists at CERN say they have detected a new particle that fits the bill for the long-sought particle.

Two independent detectors at the Large Hadron Collider - the gigantic underground particle collider housed outside Geneva, Switzerland - have found evidence of a 'Higgs-like' particle. The announcement was met with cheers and whistles as the auditorium at CERN erupted with excitement.

"We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. "The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle's properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe."

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Joe Incandela, spokesperson for the CMS experiment, presented evidence the morning of July 4th that showed a significant signal around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). That bump in the data was echoed by the ATLAS experiment and each were at a confidence level of 5 sigma - meaning there's only a 5 in 10 million chance that this is a fluke.  

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we're seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it's the heaviest boson ever found," Incandela said.

Though this is certainly exciting news, Incandela and others have been careful not to declare this particle the Higgs just yet. Though it looks like the predicted Higgs boson - a particle of a field that gives everything in the universe mass - there are more checks needed to make sure this particle has the properties of the Higgs that has been suggested to complete the Standard Model of physics.

The Standard Model is the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe. If the Higgs has properties that fit into the model, it will validate what we know about how the universe works and how matter has mass. If it turns out not to be a Standard Model Higgs, it may send us back to the drawing board to rethink what we know of how the cosmos is put together.

Incandela likened the hunt for the Higgs to a search for specific grains of sand on the beach. "I did some calculations, and if you replaced every event, every collision of the beams that we've scanned or had take place in our experiment over the last two years, if you let each one of those be represented by a grain of sand, you'd have enough sand to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And the number of events that we've collected that we claim represent this observation are on the order of tens, or dozens. So it's an incredibly difficult task, and it takes a lot of care and cross-checking."

Still, excitement is high in the physics world. Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics said, "This is the physics version of the discovery of DNA. It sets the course for a brand new adventure in our efforts to understand the fabric of our universe."

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