So what, exactly, did researchers at CERN discover — or almost discover — by smashing particles together in a 27km-long tunnel in France and Switzerland? And what are the implications for our understanding of the universe?
A panel of expert researchers at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute are deciphering and explaining today’s announcement from CERN.
Has the so-called “God Particle” been found? The results are exciting, but there is plenty more science to be done, say the experts.
“The Higgs Boson is the last undiscovered building block of our current model of the universe,” said Damien Pope, moderator of the discussion titled “What the Higgs is Going On?”
“It’s been an exciting day for particle physics,” said panelist Andy Haas of New York University, an expert in research conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
Haas explained how the LHC uses large magnetic fields to accelerate particles around the 27-km underground tunnel to “99.9999 per cent” the speed of light. The bunches of 100 billion protons are made to collide at the centre of the experiments, “out of which thousands of particles come flying out.”
There are 20 million collisions each second, however, which makes this research a little “tricky,” Haas said.
The resulting data is crunched by thousands of computers around the world, to determine the make-up of the collisions. The big question lately is whether the Higgs Boson particle is present in these collisions.
What is the significance of what CERN has uncovered in recent experiments?
The standard model of physics explains the inner workings of the universe, but there have been “missing ingredients” at the subatomic level, explained PI researcher Natalia Toro. If we don’t include those ingredients, our calculations about the universe don’t quite add up. Research at the LHC is aimed at finding those ingredients — most notably, the Higgs Boson.
The Higgs Boson is the particle that gives mass to all other fundamental particles, explained Philip Schuster. So the discovery of the Higgs Boson would cement much of our understanding of the universe.
As Haas put it: “The holy grail of particle physics is to find the Higgs Boson.”
Haas explained the complex physics behind the particle collisions, and how they are measured by researchers at CERN. The measurements seemed to indicate the presence of the Higgs Boson, though it’s too early to say with certainty.
Natalia Toro said “we’re all trying to piece together the results, and ask how consistent the results are. It’s only been a few hours since we saw these results, so we’re still trying to process and internalize these results.”
What’s next is to figure out whether the numbers produced in the experiment are consistent with theoretical predictions, Toro said.
In a sense, she added, “this is the beginning of the end of the beginning.” The next question: “If this is real, if this really is a Higgs Boson, what is its structure?”
What’s certain about the discovery, the experts said, is that nothing is quite certain yet. Plenty more research lies ahead at CERN and around the world to determine the significance of today’s announced results.
“It’s a fundamental idea in science that you never trust a result until it’s repeated,” said Haas.
Schuster insisted there will be no “conclusion” to this kind of research, because it will pose ever-deeper questions to be probed: “We want to turn the Higgs into a tool for studying even higher energy phenomena.”
Toro agreed that researchers are still in for “a long, difficult and really exciting search.”
During an audience Q&A session, one online viewer asked: “What will you do if this is not the Higgs Boson?”
“That would be fantastic,” answered Schuster, explaining that it would indicate something missing from the standard model of physics. For physicists probing these deep questions, it’s always more exciting when results don’t quite match predictions.
“Our degree of confidence (in the new results) is high, but it’s not infinite,” said Toro. “That’s why we need to keep investigating.”
So, one audience member asked, when will we know for sure about the Higgs Boson?
As with most questions in quantum physics, it turns out, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that — but plenty of ambition and optimism.