“It really is an incredible thing that it’s happened in my lifetime,” said Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh. Higgs was speaking on July 4th this year shortly after Scientists at CERN announced the discovery of the sub-atomic particle named after him which he first proposed back in 1964.
Several physicists independently dreamed up the idea of an energy field that would have permeated the early universe (and persisted to the present).
Like a puddle of treacle, the field resists the motion of particles moving through it. Such resistance to motion, or inertia, is the defining quality of mass. Subatomic particles therefore acquire differing amounts of mass depending on how strongly they interact with the energy field.
Known as the Higgs field, its existence also required a new particle — the Higgs boson. (Bosons are a class of fundamental particles defined by their quantum properties.)
Today, CERN scientists hunt the Higgs by smashing two beams of protons together at the $10 billion LHC. (Large Hadron Collider) Out of a trillion proton-proton collisions, perhaps one will create a Higgs particle, which then decays almost instantaneously into other particles. Sensitive detectors placed at the sites of these smashups look for signatures of several ways the Higgs might have decayed.
If each of the LHC’s 500 trillion collisions were represented by a grain of sand, they would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, said Joe Incandela, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a spokesman for one LHC experiment. Yet the grains from the signals of interest — the possible Higgses — would cover only the tip of your finger.
The ramifications of the discovery of the Higgs boson particle are largely unknown but it’s impact on human knowledge will far outshine the current economic malaise as viewed by future generations. It is a major stepping stone in our understanding of the Universe.