At 9am CET this morning, ATLAS and CMS – the two general purpose detectors at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider – presented results that showed the discovery of a new particle. The last particle discovery was the top quark in ’96 but this was an even bigger deal. Today they announced they’d found a particle consistent with the postulated Higgs boson.
The Higgs boson is such a big deal because it’s totally unique in particle physics. Where the top quark is basically just a heavier version of the up quark or the charm quark, the Higgs boson is unlike anything else we’ve ever discovered. It’s an excitation of the Higgs field, an omnipresent field that permeates the universe. The Higgs field interacts with almost everything. The effect of the interaction is that it creates an inertial drag, making some particles harder to accelerate. Those particles are heavier, whereas particles that interact weakly with the field are easier to accelerate and are lighter. Photons, massless particles of light, don’t interact with the Higgs field at all. So discovering a Higgs-like boson is like seeing a whitecap in the sea. By studying the whitecaps, you can begin to understand the workings of the whole ocean.
Until today, the Higgs boson was a hypothetical concept that sat at the heart of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. The discovery of the Higgs boson is the capstone on the great achievement of 20th century particle physics, and we hope it will be the stepping stone to answering the mysteries of the 21st.
The Higgs interacts with everything, particles we have discovered and particles that we have yet to discover. Studying the Higgs boson in detail is like talking to the village gossip. It knows about everything but might well need a little encouragement to give up it’s juicy nuggets of information. Hopefully in the coming year we’ll start to see hints of what it knows about the outstanding mysteries such as dark matter. This should be the beginning of a revolution in our understanding of the universe.
Some great links to more coverage of the discovery:
- Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has a good round up here.
- Denis Overbye has a lovely round up of the importance of the discovery and some thoughts from engaged researchers on what this means at the New York Times.
- Pauline Gagnon at Quantum Diaries has a great, if technical, round up of the results.