The Big Hunt for a Tiny Particle
Could this newly discovered particle explain why life exists?
Scientists looked at data from the Large Hadron Collider like the image above to help them discover the Higgs boson. (CERN / AP Images)
Last month, scientists announced the discovery of a tiny particle that could be one of the most basic building blocks that make up the universe.
Two teams working at the Large Hadron Collider, an underground research center in Switzerland, believe they’ve discovered a particle known as the Higgs boson. This long-sought-after particle could explain basic questions about life, such as why objects have mass (the amount of matter in an object).
Almost 50 years ago, British physicist Peter Higgs developed the theory behind the particle. He proposed that there is an invisible field—called the Higgs field—flooding the entire universe. All particles in nature are affected by interaction with the Higgs field.
According to Higgs, particles acquire their mass by coupling, or absorbing, the Higgs bosons from the Higgs field. Those particles that move freely within the field with little or no interaction with the Higgs bosons—such as light particles, called photons—have little or no mass.
It’s this interaction that gives us, and everything around us, mass. Without the Higgs field, there would be no people, trees, planets, or stars.
COLLIDING FOR SCIENCE
Built as far down as 574 feet below the ground near Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider accelerates opposing beams of protons (positively charged particles) around a giant ring that is 16 miles around. When these protons collide, or crash, at almost the speed of light, they explode and create other particles, such as the Higgs boson.
Researchers estimate that it takes 1 billion collisions to make just one Higgs boson. Scientists had to go through data from trillions of particle collisions to discover evidence that the collider did successfully create a Higgs boson. Even so, researchers say they need more data to fully determine if the particle they’ve discovered is definitely a Higgs boson.
“This is a momentous time in the history of particle physics and in scientific exploration—the implications are profound,” says Harvey Newman, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. “This is experimental science at its best.”