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CERN scientists find new subatomic particle; could be Higgs

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In this century's biggest physics breakthrough, scientists discovered a subatomic particle that is likely the Higgs boson, first proposed 45 years ago.

In one of the biggest physics breakthroughs of the last century, physicists at CERN, one of the world's largest physics labs, announced the discovery of a new subatomic particle.

Although they'll need further study to determine exactly what it is, it looks so far to be the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle that was first proposed 45 years ago and has been the subject of decades of theorizing and research.

What the 'God particle' is and what it means for physics

Called the "God particle" (and, jokingly, "the Goddamn particle" due to its elusiveness), the Higgs boson is not only significant in itself: Its confirmation, as The New York Times report, "reaffirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, such as ourselves, is due to flaws or breaks in that symmetry."

According to the Standard Model, the prevailing theory in physics for the last 40 years, the Higgs boson is the only physical evidence of an invisible force field or "cosmic molasses," as the Times calls it, that permeates space and gives mass to elementary particles that would otherwise be massless.

Without this "Higgs field," life would not be possible, atoms would not exist and all elementary forms of matter would zip around at the speed of light.

It was first proposed by a team of six scientists who theorized that this cosmic molasses was normally invisible but would produce its own quantum particle if it was hit hard enough by the right amount of energy. That particle, the Higgs boson, would fall apart within a millionth of a second and its weight was not known -- both factors making it hard to find.

Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, was on the team of scientists to propose the existence of the Higgs. As he entered Geneva headquarters of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), where the discovery was announced, Professor Higgs was given a standing ovation.

How scientists discovered the new particle

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is the world's largest and most expensive particle accelerator. Two teams of about 3,000 physicists each — one named Atlas and the other CMS — operate giant detectors inside of it, and then analyze the debris left over after colliding protons into each other. Last winter they both reported hints of the same particle, but the coincidence could have been due to a statistical fluke.

Since then, the teams stepped up their work with the LHC, doubling the total number of collisions it has performed since it first began operations two years ago.

Eventually, they determined that the likelihood the coincidence in their experiments was due to random chance was one in 3.5 million, which meant that it passed muster in physics for a significant discovery.

The new particle's mass is about 125.3 billion electron volts, according to CMS, and 126, according to Atlas.

Dr. Rolf Heuer, the director general of CERN, decided on Tuesday afternoon to call the Higgs result a “discovery.” He told The Times, “I know the science, and as director general I can stick out my neck.”

Initially, the discovery was to be announced at a major conference in Melbourne that started Wednesday. Ultimately, the CERN council decided to make the historic announcement at the lab itself.

A 'rock concert' or 'football game' for physicists

Three weeks ago, buzz began to build around the potential discovery, as the two teams raced to analyze 800 trillion proton-proton collisions of the last two years.

#HiggsRumors became a trending hashtag on Twitter, and an iPhone game called "Agent Higgs" came out. When the five surviving members of the team that first proposed the Higgs boson were invited to Geneva for the CERN news conference, speculation reached a frenzy.

During the conference, applause constantly interrupted the two presentations by CERN spokespeople Dr. Fabiola Giannotti and Dr. Joe Incandela, and attendees described the atmosphere to The Times as like that of a football game or a rock concert.

Dr. Higgs himself wiped a tear from his eye after the presentations and said, “For me, its really an incredible thing that’s happened in my lifetime.”

If you'd like further explanation of what the Higgs boson is, The New York Times did a roundup of humorous and serious explanations. Also, the BBC has a nice bulleted summary of how it fits with the Standard Model of physics at the bottom of this story. Or, watch this video:

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: BBC, New York Times

photo: A visualization of showing characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). (Thomas McCauley, Lucas Taylor/CMS, CERN)

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure