After $14 Billion and 800 trillion collisions, Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in CERN are claiming to have discovered a new particle that could potentially be the elusive Higgs Boson and thus the biggest discovery of the 21st Century.
The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle predicted by the Standard Model of Physics and is thought to be responsible for why other particles have mass, and why these masses vary from particle to particle. The idea is that all of space is permeated with a field, known as the Higgs field, and all particles are affected, to varying degrees, as they move through it. The greater the extent of interaction between the particle and the field, the more massive it becomes – and if it doesn’t interact at all, then it has no mass, like photons.
So, where does the Higgs boson come into this? In classical physics, we think of fields as continuous, smoothly changing entities. However quantum mechanics begs to differ and in fact, rejects the notion of continuity; rather it describes fields as distributions of tiny particles where the strength of a field is merely determined by the density of the particles at that given point. So, in terms of quantum mechanics, we can describe the Higgs field as consisting of many tiny Higgs Bosons, like light being made up of photons.
At least, that’s the theory. But, the problem with just a theory is that until you have evidence that supports your theory, there are other theories which explain the same phenomenon just as well. How do you decide which theory is more accurate? Experiments, and billions of pounds worth, in the case of the LHC. The LHC is the particle physicist’s plaything – a giant circular particle accelerator 175 metres below the ground and 27km in circumference
that allows particles to travel around it at up to 11,000 times per second. It runs two beams of these particles, normally protons, travelling in opposite directions, which are forced to collide in detectors (CMS, ALICE, ATLAS and LHCb), giving rise to the creation of new particles that can be detected. This leads to huge amounts of data, which physicists then analyse to determine their nature.
Despite all this information, scientists are still trying to confirm that what they have discovered is the Higgs Boson. Going back to the underlying question, the importance of this particle and how it affects us – well, some of us might be sceptical about the God particle for now, but it might not be too long before we eat our own words.