Yesterday, on March 14, 2013—what would have been Albert Einstein’s 134th birthday—scientists announced another milestone in the hunt for the Higgs boson. After analyzing all the data from the Large Hadron Collider, they have strong evidence that a Higgs boson—and maybe the Higgs boson—has been found. First hypothesized in 1964, the Higgs boson is thought to be the phenomenon that gives mass to all fundamental subatomic particles. Without mass, we would live in a very different place. Electrons, protons, and neutrons wouldn’t combine to form atoms, and you, me, and just about everything else simply wouldn’t exist. This latest announcement is just the next chapter in a story that began eight months ago, on July 4, 2012.
For Americans, Independence Day is a time for fireworks, family, and barbecues. However last year, the really interesting pyrotechnics were of a scientific nature. They didn’t take place in parks across America, either, but at the CERN laboratory just outside Geneva, Switzerland. There, physicists announced that they had discovered a new particle in data collected using the LHC. As a member of one of the two teams making the announcement, my colleagues and I were thrilled.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. Discovering a new particle doesn’t always draw the attention of the international media, but this breakthrough appeared on the home pages of CNN and the BBC and garnered front page, above the fold coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and more. After a search nearly half a century in the making, scientists claimed that they may have found the elusive Higgs boson.
The “may” in that last sentence is important. Eight months ago, what scientists had really announced was that a new particle had been discovered. The particle had some of the expected properties of the Higgs boson, but not all of them had been studied. The discovered particle looked and smelled like the Higgs boson, so to speak, but nobody had been able to touch, taste, or listen to it yet. To be sure that the new particle was the Higgs boson, more work was needed. After the announcement last July, the LHC continued to run. Since then, the amount of data it has produced—and allowed us to analyze—has more than doubled.
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