In 2012, researchers at Europe’s CERN high-energy physics laboratory made an unusual discovery.
The particle they detected, the Higgs particle — also called the Higgs boson or the “God particle” — has some remarkable properties. For example, according to CERN Courier, it is linked to a field that causes other subatomic particles, such as the familiar protons, neutrons, and electrons, to have mass.
As Space.com reports, it may also provide a window into what particle physicists call the “dark sector “— the vast but uncertain realm of physics that lies outside the so-called Standard Model of how the universe works on a subatomic scale.
A Powerful Theory …
So, what is the Higgs boson, and what made its detection so unusual? It was not exactly a new discovery. Physicist Peter Higgs first proposed it in 1964 as a solution to the difficulties that mass caused for our understanding of quantum mechanics.
His paper was initially turned down for publication, but Higgs’ suggestion untangled so many problems that his idea soon caught on and was adopted as an important part of the Standard Model. By the 1980s, as Smithsonian recounts, grad students were sometimes surprised to learn that the Higgs particle had never actually been detected, remaining a purely theoretical construct.
Finally, in 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider succeeded in detecting a Higgs particle. The single biggest question about the Higgs boson had been answered: It was real. As a result of the discovery, Peter Higgs was awarded a belated Nobel Prize.
… Finally Gets Real
Other consequences of the Higgs boson detection are still unfolding, a subtle interplay of theory and fact. And this interplay goes right to the heart — not only of particle physics but of science as a means of puzzling out the world around us.
In the years after 1964, the developing theory of the Higgs particle and field told physicists a great deal about what to expect. It outlined the sequence of events that would allow detection of the particle. And once a sufficiently powerful particle accelerator was available, the detection was made exactly as theory predicted. Score one for theory!
But theory alone did not tell us everything about the Higgs particle. Once scientists were able to detect it and play around with it, they began learning new things about it — characteristics that theory alone was not able to reveal. The bigger question arose: What is the Higgs boson capable of?
The nature of particle physics makes the interplay of theory and fact particularly vivid and direct. The basic method that researchers use to study subatomic particles is to bang them into each other and see what happens.
This means that once researchers can produce and detect a new particle, they can use it as a tool, slamming it into other particles (and vice versa) and observing the resulting chain of events and interactions. Observing the Higgs boson helps to answer scientists’ many questions and provides experimenters with a new instrument for observing other particles and interactions.
Fundamental Particles, Mass and the Dark Sector
CERN Courier reports that experiments with the Higgs particle have already led to three major discoveries. One is that the Higgs boson itself is a new type of fundamental particle that has a spin of zero — unlike all previously known fundamental particles.
Theory alone was not sufficient to tell whether the Higgs boson was fundamental, having no subcomponents, or a composite of an even more basic building block. But observation has shown no signs of internal structure down to a scale ten thousand times smaller than a proton.
These observations also help to explain why the so-called “weak force” (which, in spite of its name, powers nuclear fusion, according to Live Science) only operates over very short distances, comparable to an atomic nucleus. Unlike forces such as electromagnetism that are associated with massless photons, the weak force relies on the heavy Higgs boson, limiting its propagation range.
Study of the Higgs boson is helping to explain the mass of another class of subatomic particles, called fermions. Plus, it’s also helping to reveal events very early in the history of the universe. In the first instant after the Big Bang, subatomic particles such as protons had no mass. They became massive only when the Higgs field “switched on” — for reasons that physicists are still investigating.
As Space.com notes, researchers are also continuing to investigate exactly what happens when Higgs bosons decay — something that occurs after an extremely short lifetime, per Sci-News. Some decay results are common, such as two photons. Others are very rare and could provide scientists with a window into the vast, enigmatic realm of the “dark sector” — and the many mysteries it holds, including gravity, a fundamental force the Standard Model does not yet explain, and dark matter, which is detectable only by its gravity and appears to make up most of the mass of the universe.
A separate Live Science article even outlines how some theorists are considering “multiverse” scenarios in which our universe survived intact thanks to the Higgs boson, while other parallel universes collapsed because they lacked it.
We do not yet know what answers the Higgs boson will provide to these questions. But we can make a good guess that the answers will take the form of new theories, then new discoveries based on those theories — continuing the interplay of theory and fact, casting light into the darkness of the unknown.
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