This morning, scientists at CERN made an announcement about the Higgs Boson (nicknamed the God Particle). If you just look at the headlines around the internet you may have a little trouble figuring out what exactly that announcement was though. When you read headlines like, “Higgs Particle Found!” and then see another one with a title like “Higgs Particle Found?”, can leave you scratching your head and wondering whether or not they actually found the Higgs Boson. The answer: probably.
Over the past year CERN, a physics research organization based in Europe, have pretty regularly hinted at grand announcements soon to come. Back in December of 2011, scientists working at the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, announced that they had caught what they had thought were the first glimpses of the Higgs Boson in a couple of tests, but nothing was conclusive enough to say whether they had actually discovered the particle yet. The Higgs itself would be an amazing final step in proving the standard model of particle physics is correct by introducing the way in which otherwise massless subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with the Higgs field of particles.
In other terms, think of the Higgs boson as the clingy girlfriend that won’t let you do anything without her. So if she decides to go underwear shopping, you have to go underwear shopping and your otherwise frictionless b-line through the mall to get a cool chair at Sharper Image is replaced with you having to stop at every shoe store and candle shop she sees. OK, terrible analogy, but you get the point, the Higgs particles give mass to seemingly massless objects making them interact with things that they ordinarily wouldn’t. So instead of loose subatomic particles flying around aimlessly we have the atoms that make up the universe.
Today’s announcement was not that the scientists at CERN had officially discovered the Higgs Boson, but that they had compiled enough evidence since 2011 to state that they were sure of its existence by more than a reasonable amount. According to Space.com, to state with certainty that they had discovered the Higgs, they would have to observe it at a level that points to a probability of there only being a 1 in 3.5 million chance that the signal they pick up isn’t real, other wise known as “5 sigma”. The LHCs experiments showed a new particle at the predicted energy level of the Higgs with certainty level of “4.9 sigma”. So while not quite the smoking gun to lay all doubts to rest, the barrel is hot and the room smells like gunpowder.
The next step for CERN is to run more tests, increase the level of certainty even more, and start studying the properties of the Higgs candidate. So once that work is done, look for yet another big announcement from CERN, only this time there will be fewer question marks in the headlines.