Physicists welcomed July Fourth with intellectual fireworks, announcing “preliminary” results pointing to the discovery of the long-sought “God particle.” Formally known as the Higgs boson, it was detected in experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) lab near Geneva.
For the non-scientists who wonder what a Higgs boson is, USA TODAY distilled explanations from a number of physicists, including Paul Padley of Rice University, part of one of the discovery teams:
Q: So what is a Higgs boson?
A: A tiny subatomic particle that apparently weighs about 130 times as much as an atom of hydrogen, the lightest gas.
Q: What does it do?
A: Simply put, the Higgs particle interacts with other subatomic particles that are building blocks of atoms in a way that slows them down. It’s the reason that matter in the universe has mass. Mass gives the particles inertia, or resistance to being moved faster.
More on the “God particle”
Q: What is a simple analogy that describes this effect?
A: Compare Higgs bosons to groupies mobbing a celebrity. The other particles are the celebrities, desperately trying to move but slowed by autograph-seekers. Higgs bosons don’t have pens, but the attention they give to the other particles slows them, creating inertia.
Q: Why did physicists think this likely had to exist?
A: Physicists look to particles to explain forces in the universe. In the physicists’ theories, electromagnetic and nuclear forces don’t need particles with mass to work. But the particles do have mass, so we need an explanation for why. In 1964, Peter Higgs of Scotland’s University of Edinburgh and other physicists theorized the Higgs boson was the culprit.
Q: How did they make this discovery?
Essentially, two teams collected data in separate experiments that smashed together millions of subatomic particles called protons to see what pieces emerged from the smash-ups. The particle reported on Wednesday fell to pieces in ways predicted by Higgs and other physicists.
Q: How sure are they that this is the Higgs boson?
A: CERN chief Rolf Heuer calls it “a particle consistent with the Higgs boson.” CERN assigned about a 0.000057% statistical chance of the particle detection being wrong.