What We've Learned: The Higgs-Boson

In July, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, announced they might have found the Higgs boson, the long-sought subatomic particle that explains how the fundamental building blocks of molecules accumulate mass. What does the discovery tell us about matter, the universe, and the future of physics?

The Higgs boson exists—probably. Scientists said they found a particle “consistent” with the Higgs, but they stopped short of calling it a definite Higgs find. Duke physicist Al Goshaw, who worked on one of the Higgssearching teams in Switzerland, says there’s no doubt a new particle has been found—“one that looks exactly like what we need for the Higgs.”

It may come in flavors. Mark Kruse, another Duke physicist involved in Higgs research, says there may be as many as five varieties of Higgs particle, and “it remains to be seen if what has been discovered is indeed the Higgs boson of the Standard Model.”

The discovery matters. The Standard Model—the simplest explanation for how physics works—relies on the Higgs boson; without it, there’s no way to explain how fundamental particles interact and combine, and thus no way to explain how complex molecules form. If scientists can verify the particle’s role, “we will be one step further in our quest for an understanding of what happened in the first trillionth of a second of the universe that made it what it is today,” says Kruse.

This isn’t the end for the Large Hadron Collider. The four-year-old LHC—built over a period of ten years largely to hunt for the Higgs—will shut down at the end of this year, but only so engineers can soup up its speed and energy. It will reopen in 2014 with a capacity to slam particles together at nearly twice the speed that is possible today, which may give physicists a glimpse of entirely new phenomena.

It’s also not the end for particle hunters. The U.S.-based Fermilab is about to launch a new experiment to search for particles that may reveal physics beyond the Standard Model. “Nature may be elusive,” says Duke physicist Seog Oh, who is involved in Fermilab research, “but it has been always kind enough to grant us access to its inner workings.”

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