Scientists have announced that they are tantalisingly close to proving or disproving the existence of one of the fundamental building blocks of the Universe.
Although theoretical physicists have already predicted the existence of the so-called Higgs boson, it has never been observed in experiments – up until now, perhaps.
The Higgs boson is thought to be what gives everything else in the Universe mass and was proposed by a group of scientists, including Peter Higgs, back in 1964. Without the Higgs boson and the ‘Higgs Field’ which is part of this theoretical model, all the material in the Universe would just be whizzing around at light speed and not clumping together to give us planets, particles, puppies and people. We must have mass for ‘stuff’ to exist in the Universe as we know it and the theory goes, we must have the Higgs boson to give us that mass.
The Large Hadron Collider is the latest device designed to enable experiments to be conducted which may allow physicists to observe the Higgs boson or to exclude it and to say such a thing does not exist.
The LHC, is located in a circular tunnel 100 metres beneath the Swiss/French border at Geneva. As its name suggests, it is large (weighing 38,000 tonnes and running in a 27 km loop) and it is a collider of hadrons. Hadrons are atomic particles of which a proton is just one example. The protons have a positive charge and can therefore be ‘steered’ around the LHC using magnetic fields. Once they are moving fast enough, the streams of protons whizzing in either direction can be crossed leading to a collision.
With that highly powerful collision, comes a big shower of debris – particles which are only created at such high energies and the physicists at CERN hope to be able to spot the remnants of the Higgs boson in the aftermath of that collision. It is highly unlikely that the Higgs boson will ever be spotted itself, but it’s hoped that as the Higgs particle decays into other particles very quickly, it will leave a tell-tale signature that can be spotted.
In today’s announcement, the scientists were keen to emphasise that while their results are based on lots of data, they are not sufficient to allow them to categorically say one way or the other whether the Higgs boson is a reality. If it does exist, the scientists have now reduced the window in which it will detected.
Through repeated experiments, the physicists have detected some “interesting” results when they looked at the remnants of collisions in the 124-126 GeV (gigaelectronvolts) region. One of the scientists, Fabiola Gianotti said of these discoveries, “This excess may be due to a fluctuation, but it could also be something more interesting. We cannot conclude anything at this stage. We need more study and more data. Given the outstanding performance of the LHC this year, we will not need to wait long for enough data and can look forward to resolving this puzzle in 2012.”
Over the coming months, scientists at CERN will continue to focus in on this window, which is getting smaller and smaller, in the hope that they can prove one way or the other, the existence of the Higgs. In many ways today’s announcement will be a bit of a disappointment for some observers who expected to hear more definitive news. However, if the news coming from Geneva is anything to go by, it will not be long before we know for sure whether this theoretical particle is the real thing.