Q & A: The 'God particle'
This undated image made available by CERN shows a typical candidate event including two high-energy photons whose energy (depicted by red towers) is measured in the CMS electromagnetic calorimeter. The yellow lines are the measured tracks of other particles produced in the collision. The pale blue volume shows the CMS crystal calorimeter barrel. (CERN)
Kieron Lang, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Wednesday, July 4, 2012 9:51AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, July 4, 2012 11:03AM EDT
Has the announcement scientists have discovered strong evidence of the so-called 'God particle' left you confused? CTVNews.ca answers your biggest questions about the discovery and its significance.
Q: What is the "God particle"?
A: "God particle" is a nickname popularized after Leon Lederman's book “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” was published in 1993. Lederman had wanted the title to refer to a “goddamn particle,” but his editor thought it too profane. The edited name has stuck, however, as it encapsulates the significant role scientists say it plays in our understanding of what makes the universe work as it does.
The layman’s term refers to the much-more complicated Higgs boson, a subatomic particle named after the man who first theorized about its potential existence back in the mid 1960s. (University of Edinburgh researcher Peter Higgs is apparently not amused by the nickname, however, as it turns out he's an atheist.)
Q: OK, so what is a Higgs boson?
A: In physics, the Higgs boson is believed to play a key role in giving mass to all the elementary particles of the universe.
Q: So what does that mean exactly?
A: Believe it or not, some of the universe's fundamental building blocks have mass while others don't. In their efforts to understand why, physicists came up with the idea of an all-pervasive energy field (similar to the way gravity is everywhere, yet can't be seen) that interacts with particles.
According to the theory, the so-called Higgs field exists, invisibly, throughout the entire universe. Massless particles such as photons can pass through the field entirely unaffected, scientists posit. Other particles interact with it, however, acquiring mass as they do.
In other words, the Higgs field is key to energy becoming matter. A boson, which is another word for a composite particle, is an elementary particle of the Higgs field. Scientists have concentrated on finding a boson because its existence is theoretically easiest to prove. Proving the existence of such a particle, they say, necessarily proves the existence of the field.
Q: Why's it so important?
A: If the Higgs field did not exist, or had a zero-value, particles passing through it would either be massless or very light. If that were the case, atoms would disintegrate and matter would not exist. That means no planets, and no people, animals or things on them either.
Q: So, how have scientists been trying to prove its existence?
A: Because the Higgs field is believed to be uniformly distributed throughout the universe, its existence is hard to prove directly. But scientists convinced that the fact particles have mass proves it's out there waiting to be found have concentrated on the relatively easier task of finding just one tiny particle of it.
In order to come up with one, they've been concentrating tremendous amounts of energy on a single point -- by smashing protons into protons inside the high-tech Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland.
Q: So will we be able to lay eyes on this "God particle"?
In short, no, because the Higgs particles are too short-lived to be seen directly. In more than 1,000 trillion collisions the teams at CERN have managed to produce a few. But the Higgs boson decays so quickly the researchers have to sift through the atomic debris for evidence of the particles it decays into.
The hunt is also complicated by the fact those same by-products are produced by other background processes triggered when protons collide.
The only way to overcome any confusion is by repeating the experiments and gathering more and more data along the way.