Physicists were thrilled when two teams at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland found the elusive Higgs boson particle. Everyone else (with the exception of PM’s readers, naturally) was a little confused. Higgs is the final missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics; it explains why matter weighs something rather than nothing. Take away the Higgs, says Sally Dawson, a theoretical physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and “the predictions aren’t just a little wrong, they’re infinitely wrong”. – Alex Hutchinson
Physicists worry about what they call the Groucho Marx effect – that any universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it. The discovery of the Higgs boson right where physicists were looking for it is a great sign that the Universe isn’t too complicated for us to understand after all. “It’s a new clue to the Big Bang,” says Neil Turok, director of Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. “It gives us hope that we can really describe what was going on at that time.”
What’s most exciting for young physicists isn’t what the predictions got right – it’s what they got wrong. Early indications suggest that the Higgs boson isn’t behaving quite as predicted when it decays into other particles at the end of its ultra-short lifetime. So far, it’s decaying into photons more often than expected and into other particles less often. One possible explanation: the Higgs itself is a composite particle made of smaller particles, a prospect that could help to explain the mysterious dark matter that permeates the Universe.
Even Peter Higgs, the 83-year-old physicist who helped predict the new particle in the 1960s, was stumped when asked about the new discovery’s practical applications. “I have no idea,” he admitted. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any, Brookhaven physicist Howard Gordon says: “When Einstein proposed relativity, no one thought of its application to GPS.” Higgs’s discovery sheds light on the energy stored in the fabric of space – and gives us a chance to harness it.
Video: If you still feel a little under-informed, listen to theoretical physicist John Ellis as he answers the question, “What is the Higgs boson? ”