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GENEVA — Scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, report they have discovered a new subatomic particle that might be the elusive Higgs boson. Further research will be needed to confirm whether this is the so-called “God particle” which scientists believe can explain some of the most basic questions about our universe.
By Lisa Schlein
A jubilant director-general of CERN, Rolf Heuer, calls this exciting new discovery a remarkable achievement.
“I think we have a success today. We have a discovery. We have discovered a new particle, a boson – most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out which kind of Higgs boson this is,” said Heuer. “Does it have the properties which we expect from the Standard Model? If not, what are its properties and where do they point to? …We have now found the last missing cornerstone, I think.”
In particle physics, the Standard Model is sometimes known as “a theory of almost everything” that affects how subatomic particles interact and affect each other. Scientists believe the Higgs boson could explain how matter attains its mass. The search for the elusive particle, named after physicist Peter Higgs, has been going on for 45 years.
The answers to decades-old questions soon may be within reach thanks to CERN’s $10 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s biggest atom smasher. It produces high-energy collisions of protons to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe.
Theorists believe the Higgs boson existed only during the first millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, when the universe was created more than 13 billion years ago. Physicists at CERN are trying to recreate the high energies that existed at the time of the Big Bang.
The results presented Wednesday are based on data collected in 2011 and 2012 during two experiments known as Atlas and CMS, but scientists involved say more research must be done to solidify their results. However, they say even the preliminary results are dramatic and clear-cut evidence of the existence of a new particle.
A spokesman for one of the experiment teams, Joe Incandela, says the boson is very profound and unlike any other particle found so far.
“We are reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we have never done before,” Incandela noted. “This is telling us something. … It is key to the structure of the universe. …We are on the frontier now. We are at the edge of a new exploration and this could open up… Maybe we see nothing extraordinary. We understand that maybe this is the only part of the story that is left. Or maybe we open up a whole new realm of discovery.”
Peter Higgs attended the physics seminar at CERN Wednesday and was clearly moved by the results, but he would not comment on his observations.
“I think it is not appropriate for me to answer any detailed questions at this stage. This is an occasion celebrating an experimental achievement, and I should congratulate the people involved,” Higgs said.
Scientists say the implications of the new findings are very significant. They want more detailed studies, with larger data sets, to pin down the new particle’s properties and possibly shed light on other mysteries of the universe.
CERN had been planning to shut down its atom-smasher for two years, but due to these dramatic results it will keep the Large Hadron Collider in service for another two to three months before beginning essential maintenance work.
Scientists say their knowledge of the fundamental structure of matter is about to take a major step forward, regardless of the form the Higgs particle takes.