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What the ‘Rock Star’ Discovery of the Higgs Boson Means for Science

July 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
What exactly is the Higgs boson, and why is its discovery so fundamental to understanding particle physics? Author and Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample has the details.
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RAY SUAREZ: To help us further grasp today’s news and exactly what a Higgs boson is, we’re joined by Ian Sample, science correspondent for The Guardian newspaper and author of a book about the Higgs boson called “Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle.” He was at the press conference today in Geneva, and joins us now from London.

And, Ian, it’s rare to see such genuine widespread excitement from a physics discovery. Do we know something important about the way the world works that we didn’t a week ago?

IAN SAMPLE, The Guardian: Exactly right.

This was rock star stuff at CERN today. I have never seen cheering like it, apart from at a football match. And what we know today that we didn’t know yesterday and we haven’t known since it was proposed 48 years ago is that there’s an energy field in the space all around us.

It goes through us. It’s everywhere you can think of. And that field does something absolutely fundamental, which is it gives mass or weight to the smallest particles that make you and me up, everything else you can think of, any normal object. It gives weight to those objects.

And if that wasn’t there, these particles wouldn’t be around, would be flying around like light. We wouldn’t have stars, planets. None of us would be here. It’s big news.

RAY SUAREZ: Well to give people a thumbnail physics tutorial, to find out why matter has mass, I guess we have to understand really what mass is. What is mass?

IAN SAMPLE: Well, mass is something that if you take an object and you push it, mass gives you an idea of — it’s kind of a measure of how much resistance it gives to you.

It’s also an idea it gives you — obviously, when you pick something up, how heavy something is depends on its mass. Now, if you pick something up on the moon, if you happen to be on the moon, it would be lighter than it is down on here. Its mass would be the same.

But the mass is something that gives you an idea of how much something will weigh wherever you happen to be and also how much it — sort of force it takes to push it around. It basically how much heft something has.

RAY SUAREZ: So, for all that celebration, there was a little reluctance to say, eureka, we have found it. The director of the lab said, we have a discovery, we have observed a new particle that’s consistent with the Higgs boson, but he wouldn’t say it was it. Why not?

IAN SAMPLE: You know what he said to me? He said, as a layman, we have got it. As a scientist, I have to be more cautious than that.

And what this comes down to is they have definitely found a particle. What they need to do now is a lot of checks. And this is going to take months, probably a couple of years to nail down that it’s exactly the kind of particle that was predicted 48 years ago back in 1964.

Now, the subtlety here is that there’s a really simple kind of Higgs boson that was first postulated in ’64, but there are also more complex versions of it. There could be one of, say, five Higgs bosons. And what they can’t say at the moment is exactly what kind it is.

They’re near as, near as convinced that they have got a kind of Higgs. They just don’t know exactly for 100 percent definite. But they have got a particle. And they told me — senior people there told me they would bet their houses that it was some kind of Higgs.

RAY SUAREZ: One big thing that has happened since the existence of this particle was predicted is that they built this tremendous tool, a $10 billion collider, with which to test the idea. Is there any other way to find out for sure whether this exists besides smashing things together at really high speeds?

IAN SAMPLE: It’s really hard to do, because what you achieve in the large hadron collider and what was done with the U.S. Tevatron collider near Chicago was that you need to generate an awful lot of energy in a very small space, a very small volume of space.

And you need to create that energy and then be able to carefully watch what comes off it. And you’re looking for these Higgs particles which are created, but as soon as they’re created they disintegrate into other stuff we already know about.

Now, you could potentially look for these Higgs particles being produced way out in space, because the kinds of things that are more energetic than the large hadron collider and the Tevatron are cosmic rays. And these are particles that are flung around space.

Now, the problem with that is, it’s hard to get a massive detector up into space and it’s really hard to do any measurements up in space. So, what you need to do is have all this go on in a really controlled environment, where you can not only be there when stuff happens, but detect it and analyze the heck out of it. You can’t really just observe them in the atmosphere, although, theoretically, maybe that’s a possibility.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now that this discovery has been made, can you go somewhere in physics, can you do a next step that wasn’t possible before you had this result? Does this open some doors?

IAN SAMPLE: Well, you know what? This is the absolutely crucial point which cannot be answered yet.

And it all revolves on what happens next at CERN. Now, the issue is, if you find the Higgs particle is exactly as predicted by Peter Higgs in 1964, it’s very simple. He predicted the most sort of elegant and the most uncomplex kind of Higgs particle you could possibly predict.

If you find that, that’s been basically understood, and the idea has been around since ’64. And people have got as far as they can based on that understanding.

What everybody in physics, in particle physics at least, is hoping for is that, when they measure the heck out of this particle, it looks different to that simple version, that there’s some quirk about it which then tells them something else that they didn’t know.

And what they really want to find out, they want to find something they don’t understand, which gives them a lead, gives them a door to go through which will help them ultimately understand the kinds of things you’re talking about that we don’t yet have a clue about.

Why is gravity so weak? What is dark matter, this invisible stuff that clings around galaxies? What is dark energy? What is driving the expansion of universe? There is so much that physics cannot explain at the moment, far more than it can explain. And they are hoping that something quirky about the particle they found will give them a clue where to go next.

RAY SUAREZ: Ian Sample of The Guardian, thanks for joining us.