LHC physicists sniff Higgs boson discovery


December 14, 2011

Results of a proton-proton collision with four identified muons, a possible signature of a Higgs boson (Image: CERN)

Results of a proton-proton collision with four identified muons, a possible signature of a Higgs boson (Image: CERN)

The results of two recent experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva suggest physicists are close to discovering the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. Combined, the two experiments have narrowed the possible band of possible Higgs boson masses to between 115 and 130 GeV (gigaelectron volt). Rather than look directly for this fleeting would-be particle itself, physicists look for the various combinations of particles into which Higgs bosons are thought to decay. Independent analyses have verified excesses of these particles from the low mass region 124 to 126 GeV. Though not sufficient to claim a discovery, the latest experiments restrict the region in which the Higgs boson might be hiding.

Remind me. The Higgs whoson?

The existence of the Higgs boson was first proposed in the 1960s by, among others, Peter Higgs, as an explanation for why particles have mass. The idea is that particles gain mass by interacting with a universal, omnipresent, but for now theoretical, Higgs field. Higgs bosons, if they exist, are the particles that comprise that field, and its discovery would fill the last hole in what physics calls the Standard Model.

Why the God particle?

Interesting story. The nickname, loved by journalists, disliked by some scientists, comes from the title of Fermilab Director Leon Lederman's book The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? According to Peter Higgs, Lederman wanted to call it the "goddamn particle", presumably a reference to its elusiveness, but his editor preferred God particle - perhaps on the grounds that it would sell more copies. It's a nickname the media has latched on to, but don't read too much into it.

And now they've found it?

No, but, they're getting there. A seminar held at CERN yesterday announced results from two of the LHC's detectors, ATLAS and CMS. ATLAS identified that the mass of the Higgs boson is most likely in the range of 116-130 GeV, and CMS 115-127 GeV, though it sounds as if the range 124-126 GeV is looking particularly interesting. Ongoing experiments are narrowing the remaining possible range as we speak. It's a case of if your quarry goes to ground ... That said, its precise form is by no means certain, nor is its discovery assured.

Hang on.1 eV is an electron volt, right? How is that a unit of mass?

The electron volt is a unit of energy. 1 GeV is one gigaelectron volt, or 1 billion electron volts. But thanks to mass-energy equivalence it's also a unit of mass. In Einstein's famous equation, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. As the speed of light is a constant, it can be assigned a value of 1, making energy and mass equivalent. Incidentally, a proton has a mass of 0.938 GeV, so in relative terms, Higgs bosons, if they exist, are huge.

And how do they look for Higgs bosons, exactly?

This is where a particle accelerator like CERN's LHC or Fermilab's Tevatron (until it was shut down) comes in handy. By colliding protons traveling at close to the speed of light, physicists can create collisions which replicate the conditions of the first billionth of a second after the universe began: the only conditions in which certain particles are formed. The Higgs boson itself may exist too fleetingly to observe directly, but through the particles into which it decays, it should prove possible to trace.

When will we know for sure?

It's impossible to say with certainty but some physicists are saying that a 2012 discovery is possible. Because the experiments rely on looking for peaks in reams of data rather than identifying the particle itself, there is a question of statistical certainty. According to the Guardian's Ian Sample, its correspondent at CERN, four times as much data as has been analyzed to date is required to be sure. There will be a race to gather that data before the end of 2012 when LHC closes for at least 12 months for an upgrade.

Source: CERN

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

The joke continues: The priest replied, \"But, see, good sir, we have been holding a mass since Christ was born some 2000 years ago without ever have heard of you or seen you.\" To which Higgs Boson replies, \"May be, but you need me for your gravity too which holds you down to the church floor.\" The priest was unsurprised and said, \"Oh I see, I always thought it was the graveyard by the side which was the source of all the gravity; in that case, Mr. Higgs Boson, Sir, you may belong there.\"

Anadish Pal

Just finished \"A Hole in Texas\" by Herman Wouk about this very subject. Fantastic read. Coming up with a follow up soon too.


\"It\'s a nickname the media has latched on to ...\"

As part of \"the media\", do your bit James and please stop.


LHC physicists sniff Higgs boson discovery sniff you say?perhaps on the way to the cyclotron a dog dropping was inadvertaintly stepped in by the good proff.

Cowfy Kaufman

answers , answers , answers , = questions

Wayne Day

"Combined, the two experiments have narrowed the POSSIBLE band of POSSIBLE Higgs boson masses to between 115 and 130 GeV (gigaelectron volt)."

"Possible" of "possible" is narrowing?

Pretty vague sounding words...


I wonder if using the new trillion-frame-per-second camera ( in conjunction with the LHC at CERN would allow verification of the HB.

They say \"the Higgs boson itself may exist too fleetingly to observe directly\" but by \"fleeting\" do they mean less than one trillionth of a second? I\'m a layperson interested in science, as opposed to a physicist, so I don\'t know these things.

Dave Andrews

yeah , I\'m looking for my keys . I checked my pocket and it isn\'t there - so I narrowed down the list of places where it can be . I\'m on the edge of a breakthrough :)

Károly Hőss

Either way one can suppose this week's events will engender the belief in God or repudiate it, which is the great irony of science, as much as it seeks to dispel the notion of supernatural forces at work it ultimately forces one to wonder if that is ultimately what is at work, thus bringing science and the idea of God closer together as much as science may wish to dispense with it.

Christopher Koulouris

Alternate headline \"This just in! Elusive Higgs Boson STILL elusive! Film at 11.\"


God is Great! Media will latch onto anything, even for a fleeting second. The science should be framed as matter during high, (light speed). One day these particles will be regularly observed, then studied and categorised, then manipulated. Ultimately providing building blocks for structures (spaceships) travelling at or above light speed. This is far into the future.

Dawar Saify

Please stop calling it a God particle! Higgs boson does not prove or disprove existence of God nor does it need God for its existence. So please, stop calling it like that, you are supposed to be an inteligent being.

Kris Lee

@Dave Andrews You asked about a billionth of a second being fleeting... sure it is in our terms, but as far as Higgs boson decay, not at all. Its half-life is somewhere in the yoctosecond range or 1/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a second.


Did someone already post that the original title for the book with the phrase "God Particle" was originally called the "God-Damn Particle," but "God Particle" was used because it was a better title?

Kevin Stein
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