If physicists didn't sound so smart, you'd swear they were making half this stuff up. The universe began with a big bang called, well, the Big Bang. It's filled with wormholes and superstrings, dark matter and galactic bubbles, and assembled from little specks of stuff called fermions and leptons, top quarks and charm quarks, all of it glued together by, yes, gluons--and if you claim you understand a bit of it, you're probably lying too.
That's the trouble with particle physics: it exists on a plane that the brain doesn't visit--or at least most brains don't--and wholly defies our intuitive sense of order and reason, of cause and effect, of the very upness and downness of up and down. So we throw up our hands and turn it over to the scientists, and maybe every few years we read a Stephen Hawking book just to keep up appearances.
But when something really big happens, all that can change. As the Internet buzzed with the news that a wonderfully named God particle had been found, as the term Higgsteria was trending on Twitter, as scientists around the world opened champagne, the non--physics speaking joined in, high-fiving about a thing called a boson and cheering that the standard model had, in the nick of time, been saved. Now quick, what's the standard model?
There was an odd and merry disconnect between how little most people truly understood the breaking news from the physics world and the celebratory reaction that nonetheless followed it. SALK VACCINE WORKS! we get. MAN LANDS ON MOON! we get. Understanding reports that a team of scientists working for the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) had proved the existence of a particle called the Higgs boson--physics' white whale since it was first postulated in 1964--is a far harder hill to climb.
But the climb is worth it, for the discovery of the Higgs boson helps explain nothing less than why our existence is possible. The particle--named for Scottish physicist Peter Higgs, who was one of the small team of researchers who developed the idea--is the very reason any mass at all exists in the universe. Energy is easy. But energy and matter are like steam and ice, two different states of the same thing. If you can't ping energetic particles with something--the Higgs boson, we've now proved--then planets, suns, galaxies, nebulae, moons, comets, dogs and people don't exist. A cold and soulless cosmos may not care either way, but we very much do.
"We are nothing but quarks and electrons and a lot of empty space," says physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who headed one of the two experimental teams at CERN that nailed down the discovery using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a $10 billion particle accelerator that crashes protons into one another at 99.9999991% of the speed of light. "People ask why it is so important to discover the particle that gives mass. But without mass, the universe would not be the way it is."
Having the Higgs in hand is not the end of the work. The particle may help physicists crack some of the other great cosmological mysteries: the nature of gravity, the invisible dark matter that makes up 80% of the universe, the dark energy that is forever pulling the cosmos apart. There's a strange mixing of faith and physics in all this--a contemplation of puzzles so hard to grasp and findings so consequential that they take on a sort of secular religiosity.