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The Higgs Boson

by JoAnna Wendel | University of Oregon

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: July 9, 2012
JoAnna Wendel JoAnna Wendel

I stayed up all night July 3rd. It was because I didn’t have work on the 4th, but I wasn’t out drinking or getting into normal college-aged-girl shenanigans (you know, like painting our nails and stuff). I was snuggled in bed, watching a live-streamed event happening in Geneva.

It was scientists from CERN presenting the results of the experiments going on 100 meters under the ground, in the largest and most powerful particle accelerator known to man. These were results coming after two years of running the Large Hadron Collider, which smashes subatomic particles together at near-light speeds, mimicking the precious few moments after the Big Bang.

Why were scientists colliding subatomic particles together using superconducting magnets? It’s not because of their desire, like the Hulk, to smash. It was because of their desire to make a discovery that was predicted by physicists, most notably British scientist Peter Higgs, 48 years ago. They were trying to find the Higgs Boson.

The Higgs Boson is the missing puzzle piece in the Standard Model of physics, which explains how the subatomic world works. You’ve probably heard it referred to as “The God Particle,” which as a matter of fact, physicists hate. So stop calling it that. The reason it was nicknamed the God Particle in the first place was because this special little subatomic particle is what physicists predict gives particles in the universe mass. It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time as the Higgs field. You’re in it right now, but you can’t detect it.

To try to imagine the how the Higgs field gives particles mass, imagine that you’re walking through honey. There’s a drag, and it slows you down. The Higgs field works in the same way, but on a much, much smaller scale – and it’s undetectable. Subatomic particles all interact differently with the Higgs field. Some are more dragged down by it than others. Scientists don’t know why, but they’re trying to figure that out. The Higgs field is represented by the Higgs Boson.

And now scientists think they’ve found it. There’s a predicted mass range under which the Higgs Boson is estimated to be found, and thousands of scientists were working on two different detectors within the LHC collecting data. When two subatomic particles are slammed together, some more subatomic particles result. But these new particles decay so fast that scientists can’t see them, only the leftovers. Luckily these leftovers give a hint as to what their parent particle was. Millions of particles were smashed together every minute for the last two years, giving the scientists the large data set that they needed to find the Higgs Boson.

At 3 in the morning on July 4th, I watched from under the blankets as an auditorium gave a standing ovation to the scientists at CERN for making the most significant finding physics has known in decades. By 5AM Peter Higgs even stood up to speak, graciously thanking the thousands of scientists who contributed to the projects. He said he never expected the Higgs to be found during his lifetime.

But this is only the beginning. Physicists at CERN still have tons of experimental data to play with. Their hope is that the Higgs Boson doesn’t act like it’s supposed to, which would be a clue that there’s still more to find. So far scientists have only found the tip of the iceberg, and they don’t know how far down the iceberg goes, or even if it’s made out of just water. Only time, and lots and lots of work, will tell what the finding of the Higgs Boson will mean for the rest of physics.

JoAnna Wendel JoAnna Wendel JoAnna Wendel is a NGJ Voices Contributor and a sophomore at the University of Oregon. She is currently seeking a degree in Biology while minoring in Communication Studies. She is the science blogger and columnist for the Oregon Daily Emerald, and hopes to make a career by mixing science, culture, and journalism.

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