By John Heilprin
First proposed as a theory in the 1960s, the maddeningly elusive Higgs had been hunted by at least two generations of physicists who believed it would help shape our understanding of how the universe began and how its most elemental pieces fit together.
As the highly technical findings were announced by two independent teams involving more than 5,000 researchers, the usually sedate corridors of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, erupted in frequent applause and standing ovations. Physicists who spent their careers in pursuit of the particle shed tears.
The new particle appears to share many of the qualities as the one predicted by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others and is perhaps the biggest accomplishment at CERN since its founding in 1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.
Rolf Heuer, director of CERN, said the newly discovered particle is a boson, but he stopped just shy of claiming outright that it is the Higgs boson itself — an extremely fine distinction.
“We have a discovery,” he told the elated crowd. “We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”
The Higgs, which until now had been purely theoretical, is regarded as key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give all objects weight.
The center’s atom smasher, the 8.05€-billion Large Hadron Collider, sends protons whizzing around a circular 17-mile underground tunnel at nearly the speed of light to create high-energy collisions. The aftermath of those impacts can offer clues about dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the big bang.
Higgs, who was invited to be in the audience, said Wednesday’s discovery appears to be close to what he predicted.
“It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime,” he said, calling the discovery a huge achievement for the proton-smashing collider.
Outside CERN, the announcement seemed to ricochet around the world.
In an interview with the BBC, the world’s most famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, said Higgs deserved the Nobel Prize. Hawking said he had placed a wager with another scientist that the Higgs boson never would be found.
“It seems I have just lost 80.46€” he said.
Marc Sher, a professor of physics at the College of William & Mary, said most observers concluded in December that the Higgs boson would be found soon, but he was “still somewhat stunned by the results.”
Joe Incandela of the University of California at Santa Barbara, leader of the team known as CMS, said the discovery is so fundamental to the laws of nature that it could spawn a new era of technology and development in the same way that Newton’s laws of gravity led to basic equations of mechanics that made the industrial revolution possible.
“This is so far out on a limb, I have no idea where it will be applied,” he added. “We’re talking about something we have no idea what the implications are and may not be directly applied for centuries.”
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