Since the idea from the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, came about to build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) with a price tag of $10bn, questions were raised about its validity in the scientific community to contribute enough knowledge that would justify the large investment. It uses immense amounts of energy to fling particles in opposite directions around a tunnel, 27 kilometres in circumference, to collide at the rate of about 3 metres per second slower than the speed of light.
One of the primary missions of the LHC since its completion in 2008 has been to discover the existence of the Higgs boson. It is thought to hold the key to understanding the fundamental workings of the universe (something we think we understand better than we actually do), or at least, one of the most important pieces to the yet unsolved puzzle. It’s the last undiscovered piece of the widely accepted theory of particle physics, the Standard Model. Nicknamed the “God particle”, the Higgs would explain a rudimentary universal question yet to be answered: Where does mass come from? Or simply, why do things have mass?
In the past couple of decades a lot of research has gone into this field, as it could open doors to other intrinsic questions of our existence. Using the known (already proven) theories of physics, scientists were able to roughly estimate the mass of the universe, and more locally, our galaxy. However, there seemed to be too little “star stuff” in the Milky Way according to this estimate, and the Higgs is also thought to hold the answers to what is called dark matter, which is thought to make up the “missing” mass from our galaxy.
Researchers at the LHC facility announced that they’d detected a particle about 125 times the mass of a proton, which they firmly believe is the Higgs boson. “This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” Joe Incandela, spokesperson for LHC’s CMS experiment, said in a statement. “The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.”
To verify the discovery, physicists gather enough data to statistically infer it to be true, which they can do when their statistics reach a level called 5 sigma, which means that there is only a one in 3.5 million chance the signal isn’t real. The Higgs is so rare that about one in every trillion collisions inside the LHC is likely to produce it. “This is not a needle in a haystack — it’s much worse than a needle in a haystack,” said Joe Lykken, a theoretical physicist.
According to CERN physicists, detection of the Higgs boson would have great implications, among the most important being the validation of the LHC, but more relevant to science the:
- Explanation of the origin of mass
- Completion of the Standard Model
- Supersymmetry explained
- Unification of the electroweak force
Physics and our understanding of the universe could have just taken a huge leap forward.