Science has a well-deserved track record for being horrifyingly challenging, but sometimes it's the best concerns that head to truly powerful ideas. When Einstein requested himself, "What would occur if you could trip on a stream of light?" for example, the reply led him to the Unique Idea of Relativity.
For the last few generations, compound physicists have been struggling with another stealthily easy question: Why does anything have mass? You might wonder "why not?" But according to contemporary physics, you can't get away that quickly. The lifetime of huge — the home or home of issue that gives severity something to take on — needs conveying.
Now, say two independent teams of scientists who revealed their results at a symposium in Switzerland Tuesday morning, there are experimental signs of an elusive particle formally known as the Higgs boson — and informally known as the "God particle." If the Higgs is really there, the existence of mass has finally been explained, and a Scottish physicist named Peter Higgs is a lock for the Nobel prize.
It's a big "if," though, and nobody is making an actual claim. Indeed, said Fabiola Gianotti, a member of one of the teams said at the symposium. "We cannot conclude anything at this stage."
But that hardly means there's nothing to say. The gathering took place in a packed auditorium at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva — the home of the mammoth Large Hadron Collider. The LHC, which is the world's most powerful particle accelerator, works by taking subatomic protons, sending them racing in opposite directions through a 17-mile oval-shaped tunnel, then letting them smash together head-on at nearly the speed of light. The impact is powerful enough to vaporize the particles into tiny fireballs of pure energy, recreating conditions in the first moments after the Big Bang. Then, just as in the early universe, the energy re-condenses into particles. Among them may be the elusive Higgs.
That's what physicists have been hoping for, anyway, since long before the LHC was even built. It was way back in the 1960's that Peter Higgs, of the University of Edinburgh, proposed what came to be known as the "Higgs mechanism" (others came up with similar ideas, but his is the name that stuck). The way it works is ... no, let's not go there. Suffice it to say that there's a sort of energy field that pervades the universe, and that when particles like protons, neutrons, quarks and the rest interact with the Higgs field, they're rewarded with mass. The Higgs boson helps broker the transaction. (Photos: Seeking Beauty in Scientific Research)
When the Higgs condenses out of particle collisions, it immediately decays into other particles, so physicists can't see it directly; they can only reconstruct its existence from the debris, like a CSI unit reconstructing what a bomb must have looked like from the fragments. And since each mini-Big Bang creates so many particles that decay into so many other particles, the reconstruction is incredibly difficult. The good news is that the new hints of a Higgs in all of that particle debris come from not one, but two entirely different detectors at the LHC — the ATLAS (for "A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS") and the CMS (for Compact Muon Solenoid). The two operate in different ways, as a sort of mutual cross-check.
Both detectors have seen evidence of the Higgs — which is big news and the reason for both the symposium and all of the speculation that attended its announcement. But the less good news is that in statistical terms, that evidence weighs in at what is known as the three-sigma confidence level. No need to go here in too much detail either, except to say you'd need to get to the five-sigma stage to claim an actual discovery. "It's too early to draw a definite conclusion," said Gianotti. "We need four times as much data."
Getting that data requires many thousands of fireballs, and the LHC accelerator will need another year or more to crank all of them out and allow Gianotti and her colleagues to announce that they've indeed discovered the Higgs boson. Or not. "The number of sub-three-sigma discoveries that have turned out to be wrong," says Princeton astrophysicist Michael Strauss, "is reasonably large."
You'd think that if the hunt for the Higgs comes to nothing it would be a big disappointment for physicists. But it's not necessarily so. Finding the Higgs would add a key missing brick to the edifice of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, which would be important — but also just a bit dull.