DURHAM -- The audience could have been at a rock concert, applause erupting with each new song.
Scientists at CERN, the organization that runs the Large Hadron Collider may have found the elusive Higgs boson, nicknamed the God particle. It is the last blank to fill in the Standard Model of subatomic particles and could be critical to understanding exactly how the universe was created.
The applause wasnt for songs, but for slides in two PowerPoint presentations that aired Wednesday at 3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time from Geneva. The crowd cheered whenever they saw 5 sigma on a slide, meaning there is less than a one-in-a-million chance the results are a fluke.
It is the end of an almost 50-year investigation, with thousands of scientists involved.
The results may have little technical importance now, but Al Goshaw, professor of physics at Duke, said its a bit like space exploration.
Were trying to understand nature at its most fundamental level, he said. These theories also connect to the beginning of the universe. To know how that happened, we need this basic science.
The Standard Model in particle physics is somewhat like the periodic table in chemistry; basically a spreadsheet of particles. A particles location predicts its properties. Some particles in the Standard Model are quarks, which are the building blocks of protons and neutrons.
It will take years of further experimentation to test whether this new particle truly is the Higgs. If it is, then the Standard Model gets a stamp of approval, and our theories about subatomic particles have been on the right track.
But it could be something entirely new, Goshaw said.
This possibility is as tantalizing as the Higgs to some scientists. This would open up a whole new field of discoveries, and would require an overhaul of the Standard Model.
One thing is indisputable.
We have certainly discovered a new particle, Goshaw said.
Goshaw worked on the ATLAS detector, one of the two detectors at LHC looking for the Higgs. CMS is the other. The two projects presented their results independently on Wednesday, and the results both told the same story.
It behaves exactly like the Higgs boson is predicted to behave, Goshaw said.
The Higgs boson is the mechanism that gives particles mass. Each of the four fundamental forces of nature is proposed to have such a particle.
One of these forces is the electromagnetic force. When two charged objects are brought close together, they interact by sending photons, also known as light particles, to each other.
When two heavy objects like the Earth and moon are brought close to each other, they interact with the gravitational force. The Higgs boson, if theories are correct, is the particle that transmits this force. The Higgs is to gravity as the photon is to the electromagnetic force.
It was difficult to look for the Higgs because gravity, believe it or not, is the weakest of the four forces. Atom-smashing events that produce this particle are extremely rare.
Further, because the Higgs is a heavy particle, more than 100 times the mass of a proton, it requires enormous energies. Only the LHC could provide the oomph needed, and it has only been open for business since 2008.
The LHC has almost 17 miles of tunnels to accelerate particles through before colliding them. The detectors then record the aftermath, the particle debris from the collision. The physicists, like ballistics experts, then deduce what happened at the scene of the crime.
Goshaw underscores the importance of the competition between ATLAS and CMS in producing these results.
The two drive each other. We eat lunch together, but were really quite competitive. We dont share, he says. Theres often a husband on one team, a wife on another. Who knows if they have anything to talk about at dinner? he said, chuckling.
On the other hand, Goshaw has been proud to see such an international collaboration.
Its like a United Nations of Science, just working well together, he said.
This basic science of such discoveries also has beneficial spinoffs.
It really captures the imaginations of students, says Goshaw. Fifteen Duke students are at CERN this summer. They get this strong technical training, but most go off and do other things. Were really producing talented people.
Some of those talented people may take Goshaws Standard Model course at Duke next year.
Every year, my last transparency says A key component is still missing, he says. It will be a pleasure to have a happy ending next time.