Finally the Higgs Particle!

05.07.2012 - Madrid - Ernesto H. De Casas

So, it’s a victory and a stimulus to continue researching.

And why is it so important, we laymen wonder? Because this is what would explain the mass that things have; given that without mass nothing would exist from the strict angle of physics. Of course, on a subatomic level. From here the importance of the search of this sub-particle which, in addition, is very elusive. But something has been found, just like in a detective novel.

At 9:00am the spokesperson for one of the two biggest particle detectors of the LHC, the CMS, Joe Incandela took the microphone and over the course of 45 minutes presented the results while making the announcement that a boson-type particle of mass 125.3 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) had been found. Although he didn’t use the word Higgs, the rapturous applause in the auditorium made it very clear what everyone seemed to be thinking: it must be the Higgs. Finally. Half a century after its existence was conjectured, the so-called Higgs particle, named after the theory’s author who was present in the auditorium, has been discovered. It is something really important as from now we know how the universe functions a bit better. It was necessary to build the most powerful particle accelerator, the LHC, with two colossal detectors and have the joint work and enthusiasm of thousands of physicists and engineers from all over the world involved in the investigation.

Why is it so important? Well, because the Higgs boson (particle), in very simple terms, helps to explain why elementary particles have mass. If the electron, for example, had no mass, atoms would not form and without atoms there would be neither stars, nor planets, nor us, people. Incredible!

So in announcement, in the midst of global expectation and in an auditorium packed will excited people in the European Laboratory of Particle Physics (CERN), next to Geneva, the scientists who work with the big LHC particle accelerators announced the discovery this Tuesday. “We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” stated Rolf Heuer, CERN director.

It is Peter Higgs, the 83 year old veteran of theoretical physics, who in the seventies was the person who proposed this theory to explain the origin of mass and in whose honour the particle is named, studies that he did based on previous works. He was in the CERN auditorium and was lovingly cheered. He said, *“I am extremely impressed by what you have achieved. My congratulations to everyone involved in this incredible achievement, and it is a joy to have lived to see it,”* citing the colleagues who collaborated in that theory, almost 50 years ago, leaving all the protagonism to the LHC physicists who have now made the discovery.

After the very nervous Incandela came the turn of his colleague, Fabiola Gianotti, spokesperson for the other big experiment, the Atlas, who explained the technical details of the research until at the end he said that his team had the signature of this new particle with a mass of 126.5 GeV (perfectly consistent with the measurement of CMS, as he later clarified).

But, are they sure? In their measurements, the certainty obtained, they explained, is 5 sigma (in the case of Atlas) and 4.9 sigma (in CMS), which implies a probability of error so low, less that 0.3 chance in a million, that the physicists effectively consider it to be a discovery. Although as scientists, Heuer, Incandela and Gianotti reiterated time and again that what the experimental data show is the existence of a new particle, a boson with this mass. Before going on, we must spell out, that a boson is an elementary particle that, like the photon, interacts with fermions and is, in turn, an elementary particle that, like the proton and electron, conforms to the Fermi-Dirac statistics. And now they will have to continue researching its characteristics to be sure that we are dealing with the famous Higgs boson predicted in the Standard Model, the particle that completes it, the one piece missing in the universal jigsaw puzzle.

For their part, they say that the Standard Model describes, with utmost precision, the elementary particles and the forces of interactions between them. But there is, or was, an extremely important hole in not being able to explain why particles have the mass that they have. No less! And the answer was proposed half a century ago by the Brit Peter Higgs and other specialists, which was the presence of a tiny new particle, that would explain that origin of mass that some particles have. This new particle, the so-called Higgs boson, this is what has finally shown up in the detectors of the LHC.

So that we may understand better, the CERN scientists explain, “Without mass, the universe would be a very different place… For example, if the electron has no mass, there would be no chemistry, no biology, no people,” as a result of which, we understand, none of this would have been discovered. *“Plus, the sun shines thanks to a delicate interaction between fundamental forces of nature that would not work if some of those particles had no mass.”*

This is why the Higgs particle is so important.

And, of course, there is no lack of those who speak of the “God Particle” …

The Higgs mechanism is something tremendously technical, but throughout the years numerous analogies have been proposed to explain it. One of the most illuminating ideas is that of Gian Francesco Giudice in his book “A Zeptospace Universe”, in which he explains that particles acquire mass through interaction with the Higgs field. Think about water in which dolphins swim and hippopotami bathe, Giudice says, here for particles that have no mass, like the photon, water is totally transparent, as if it didn’t exist, while those with mass, but little, slide through easily, hardly interacting with the liquid, like dolphins. But very heavy particles are like hippopotami, they move with difficulty in water. So the Higgs field, the water in the simile, shows up in certain conditions either like a new particle, or like a wave on water, which is most probably what the LHC physicists have found.

They also explain that although these experiments are very sophisticated and complex, it is basic rigorous science, fundamental knowledge of nature, and when faced with the issue of why resources are spent on it in times of crisis, Heuer was clear, *“If you have a sack of maize you can eat it all or save a part to sow later; basic science is that part of the maize that you sow later.”*

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