The ‘God Particle’: ‘Tantalising Hints’ of Higgs Boson Seen by CERN Physicists

Computer readout from the search for the Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God particle." Thomas McCauley and Lucas Taylor/CMS/CERN

The Higgs boson - a subatomic particle so important to the understanding of space, time and matter, say physicists searching for it, that it took on the portentous nickname of " the God particle."

Scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in the Alps, say today that while they have not found it for sure, they think they have seen good signs of it.

Joe Incandela, a top CERN physicist, has described the data from one of the two main experiments done there as being "right at the boundary of where you might get a vague hint of something."

The particle, until now, has existed only in theory - rigorous theory, first proposed by the English physicist Peter Higgs 40 years ago, but until now it's never actually been detected. The Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator 17 miles in circumference, was built deep beneath the mountains on the French-Swiss border to send atoms crashing into each other at nearly the speed of light. It would be enough that if the particle actually exists, the LHC's detectors would see evidence.

They did, said two teams of physicists this morning, but they could not yet say with the ironclad assurance they would like. "Tantalising hints have been seen by both experiments in this mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery," said scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory who have been involved in the CERN experiments.

Dr. Claire Shepherd-Themistocleus of Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory put out a statement, quoted by London's Guardian, saying, "We are homing in on the Higgs. We have had hints today of what its mass might be and the excitement of scientists is palpable. Whether this is ultimately confirmed or we finally rule out a low mass Higgs boson, we are on the verge of a major change in our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter."

Two separate detectors placed along the collider's path saw signs of a new particle, about 125 times as massive as a proton, but researchers said at a packed briefing that they could not be sure it did not weigh less. More work must be done, they said.

What's this all about? Would it reduce the unemployment rate, or end wars? No, say scientists, but it would help explain why we, and the rest of the universe, exist. It would explain why the matter created in the Big Bang has mass, and is able to coalesce. Without it, as CERN explained in a background paper, "the universe would be a very different place…. no ordinary matter as we know it, no chemistry, no biology, and no people."

Part of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. AP photo.