4 Jul 2012

What has the Higgs boson ever done for me?

Scientists at Cern claim to have discovered the “God particle”, explaining how the universe is held together, but does this affect anyone who is not a particle physicist?

Wiping a tear from his eye, Peter Higgs, who first expounded the theory of the Higgs boson, congratulated all those involved in the latest discovery.

The discovery of the elusive particle, announced at Cern in Switzerland, opens doorways into exploring theories straight out of the pages of a sci-fi novel, such as dark matter and alternative dimensions.

Whilst this maybe an emotional moment in the particle physics laboratories worldwide – does it make any difference to the public?

Has it been discovered?

Teams at Cern, the European physics research centre which runs the atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider, have unearthed a particle which has properties “consistent with” the Higgs boson.

That a new particle has been discovered is certain. However, it is not yet certain that this is the Higgs boson, or perhaps something more exotic.

If this is the Higgs boson then it will confirm the “Standard Model”– the theory of the structure of matter throughout the whole universe.

Joe Incandela, spokesman for the CMS physics team at Cern, said: “The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.”

Rolf Heuer, the director of Cern, told Channel 4 News: “people are really eager to investigate this new particle and to see if it has brothers or sisters, because that would be new physics beyond the standard model which might yield new understanding of the dark universe.”

Dark matter is believed to make up around 95 per cent of the universe and, as yet, very little is known about it.

So will this breakthrough mean a loss of motivation for the scientists? Certainly not, said Dr Heuer: “After all, with this Higgs boson we’ve just closed the project of the visible universe (the standard model), and 95 per cent is still open. Now it’s time to attack the 95 per cent – I don’t think you need any more motivation than that.”

The announcment at Cern follows the discovery of “signs” of the Higgs boson in December last year.

What is it?

Higgs boson graphic

The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle and the missing piece in the Standard Model theory. It was first mooted by Peter Higgs nearly 50 years ago.

The theory explains how particles gain mass. It expounds that a fraction of a second after the Big Bang the universe was filled with a “Higgs field” made up of Higgs boson particles.

Before the Big Bang the particles that make up atoms, such as electrons and neutrons, are believed to have moved around the universe at the speed of light, unencumbered.

The benefits could come 50 or 100 years into the future. What I can say is they will be spectacular when they come. Dr Alan Barr

As the particles moved through the Higgs field some of them would be slowed by the Higgs boson particles. As the particles slowed their energy would be condensed into a super-concentrated form of energy: mass.

Without mass then subatomic particles would not form atoms, and therefore planets, stars, people and everything with mass in the universe would not exist.

Dr Alan Barr is a lecturer in particle physics at Oxford University and UK physics coordinator for the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS team. ATLAS, alongside another team CMS, are responsible for the boson discovery.

“For almost a century we have been exploring the sub atomic world, the world that atoms are made out of,” Dr Barr said.

“It is a theory that explains so much perfectly about the universe but one part had been missing and without this part the whole theory looked extremely shaky.”

Peter Higgs

What does this practically mean?

The importance of this discovery to particle physicists is clear, but at an estimated cost of more than £4bn to the 20 member countries, including debt-hit Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, will it lead to any practical benefits?

“The likely benefits of this we can’t begin to guess at,” Dr Barr said. “The benefits could come 50 or 100 years into the future.

“What I can say is they will be spectacular when they come. We don’t yet know how to make it work for our benefit but it is such a fundamental discovery, the benefits will come.”

Dr Barr points to the future benefits of other scientific discoveries. “When Michael Faraday was messing around with electricity he was asked why he was doing this when the world needed better candles,” Dr Barr said.

“When Rutherford (Ernest) discovered the nucleus he said the chance of getting something useful from it was ‘moonshine’.”

Have we already benefitted?

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web. At Cern. Other world-changing examples have also come from the boson hunt.

The construction of the technology required to smash atoms together at close to the speed of light has led to other advances in medical imaging, superconductivity, radiation therapy for cancer treatment and advanced machinery.

Dr Barr said: “To make the machines capable of exploring this theory has led to huge amounts of technology spinning off. We have pushed the frontiers of technology.”

Where next?

The discovery of the Higgs boson, if that is what it is, was the first aim of the Large Hadron Collider. However, this is not the end for the 27km circular tunnel.

Dr Barr said there are two main things that now need to be explored. The first, which could take a further ten years, is working on the Higgs boson – exploring the nature of the discovery and confirming its implications.

Cern director general Rolf Heuer said: “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

The second is moving onto those other “mysteries of the universe”. If the Higgs boson proves the Standard Model then it provides a launch pad into exploring other models that deal with theories such as supersymmetry and extra dimensions.

Supersymmetry is a theory that suggests that every particle that has been discovered has a “partner particle”. It is thought that this partner particle could make up dark matter.

The large hadron collider could also be used to explore gravitons – particles that define the nature of gravity and that could lead to the proof of other dimensions layered on top of our own.

“Or it could discover something completely different, ” Dr Barr said. “We will push further the energy frontier.

“The Large Hadron Collider is not a one trick pony.”