A Brief History of the Higgs Hunt

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You may have never heard of the Higgs boson, but scientists at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva have spent a lot of time and money looking for it. Now, after an 11-year search, they think they may have actually found it.

The Higgs boson is nothing less than the missing link in the standard model of particle physics, the theory of how the universe works at the subnuclear level. "The theoretical model worked fine," says Tiziano Camporesi, one of the CERN scientists involved in the Higgs hunt, "with one major hiccup: we had no explanation for why particles have mass."

Mass, a measurement of the amount of matter in an object, is thought to result when particles interact with the Higgs field, first postulated by the Scottish theoretical physicist Peter Higgs in 1964. Camporesi likens the Higgs field to "a kind of molasses that pervades all of space and clots around particles when they move. The ripples that result when particles move around in this molasses explain mass." The only problem with the Higgs field is that the theory requires the presence of Higgs boson particles, which no one has ever seen until now.

To find the Higgs, the CERN team smashed together two other fundamental particles electrons and positrons in CERN's Large Electron-Positron collider (LEP). When high energy particles collide inside the LEP accelerator, new particles are created as the energy of the crash is converted into matter. This freshly minted matter spins out from the collision at incredibly high velocities and disintegrates again within about one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. Finding the Higgs in this miniature big bang is like blowing up a haystack and trying to spot a needle as the debris flies past.

CERN scientists announced in September that they thought they'd seen the Higgs, though to be sure they wanted time to conduct more experiments. But there was a catch: LEP was scheduled to close down at the end of September so construction could begin on the lab's better and faster accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The only drawback: the new $1.45 billion accelerator won't be operational until 2005. In that time rival accelerators could get to the Higgs first. Last week CERN scientists felt their evidence for the Higgs was strong enough to request an extension of the accelerator's run, a decision that must be approved by the lab's governing council later in the year.

All the fuss about the Higgs is fine if you're a fan of particle physics, but ultimately, so what? Questions about the role of basic research are becoming increasingly important as scientific advances themselves grow more complex and much more expensive. And CERN is the perfect place to begin finding answers. The primary reason for investigating fundamental scientific mysteries is simple: because they are there. The drive to discover is behind all human creativity.

If it's practical applications you're looking for, cern can help there, too. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN as a way for physicists to exchange data. In industry, smaller accelerators are used to manufacture products ranging from rubber gloves to artificial hips to computer chips. In medicine, accelerator technology is used in advanced imaging techniques like positron emission tomography for brain scans and in radiotherapy for cancer treatment. Basic research does have practical applications, but they are often impossible to predict. That's precisely what makes pure science so exciting, so worthwhile and so completely unlike molasses.

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