UW physics department helps discover the “God” particle, a framework for the universe

Worker at CERN inspects components within an oversized waveguide inside the Large Hadron Collider. Photo by Peter Ginter, courtesy of CERN.

On July 3rd, a gathering of physicists, students, and science fans waited eagerly in a Lower Queen Ann restaurant to view a two a.m. live broadcast of European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s recent findings in the search for the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle believed to confer mass itself. In the crowd were two of several UW physicists who aided in the search and discovery of this subatomic particle at CERN, Anna Goussiou and Gordon Watts. Elated, the two cheered as CERN confirmed the discovery of a new boson.

The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle believed by scientists to have existed for decades, but plausible proof was compiled only weeks before CERN’s early July announcement. Definite existence of a boson was found to be at five sigma, which is a statistical scale for determining the certainty of a discovery. Anything at or above five marks an extremely likely existence. Whether or not it is an actual Higgs requires more time and research at Geneva, Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and although it was scheduled cease operation in December for a two year maintenance and upgrade period, it was announced that it will stay running for an extended three months in light of the recent findings. The maintenance time will double the tunnel’s power, which is currently at 3.5 Tera-electron Volts (TeV). The LHC smashes protons together at such high energy levels in its seventeen mile tunnel that it is compared to the Big Bang, and physicists gather massive amounts of data through different channels of the LHC like the ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) and CMS (Compact Muon Spectrometer). With one billion proton-proton collisions every second, combining research from each channel and cross examining is an extensive task for the 3,000 scientists and 1,000 graduate students currently at work in Switzerland. Four UW physicists and several graduate students are included in this count, each with different focuses in the massive project. With extended months of operation and nearly unlimited research paths to follow with the LHC’s soon to be amped up power and data collection ability, hopefully more UW students will have the opportunity to contribute to breakthroughs similar to this one.

The Higgs boson, believed to be the key to why matter has mass, is the last missing piece to the Standard Model, which is particle physicists’ running theory for discovering the universe’s particles and comprehending the forces that direct them. Existence of the Higgs boson not only potentially confirms the Standard Model, but also begins a new era of scientific research, which could further our understanding of the universe, including the structure of dark and anti-matter. It is called misleadingly by some the “God” particle because the Higgs boson and its relationship with how particles have mass infer that it in a sense created everything and is the framework for the entire universe.

Stephen Hawking, world renowned physicist, had denounced CERN’s search for a new boson, believing such particle could not be found, and lost a bet against colleague Gordon Kane of the University of Michigan following CERN’s announcement.

A major advancement in the realm of particle physics, the discovery of the new boson and impending confirmation of it being a Higgs boson is an exciting opening of numerous scientific doors, all leading to new discoveries of the universe and how it was created on a subatomic level.