UPDATED 07/03/12 6:30 a.m.
BATAVIA, Ill. (CBS) — Fermilab physicists say their now pretty sure they have seen tracks of the long-sought Higgs boson – popularly known as the God particle.
As WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports, the Tevatron at Fermilab had been the world’s groundbreaking particle accelerator, until CERN in Switzerland opened up with an even higher-powered machine. Both machines have been seeking tracks to the Higgs boson, or particle, which is believed to comprise the Higgs field that gives mass or weight to everything in the universe.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports
Fermilab physicists emphasize that the Higgs boson is more than just another elementary particle.
“We’ve got lots of elementary particles. We don’t really need any more elementary particles,” said theoretical physicist Jim Licken. “But the Higgs boson is special.”
It’s so special, in fact, that it could change our very understanding of matter, and the universe itself.
“We think the Higgs boson really gets at the center of some physics that is responsible for why the universe is here in the first place, and what the ultimate structure of matter is,” Licken said.
Fermilab is now announcing that it has found Higgs tracks to a 3-sigma (3σ) degree of certainty – meaning three standard deviations away from the mean, or 600 to 1. A higher degree of certainty, 5-sigma (5σ), may come Wednesday at 2 a.m. when CERN in Switzerland announces its Higgs results.
Physicist Tom LeCompte of the Argonne National Laboratory says the Fermilab results come from computer analysis of particle collisions in the Tevatron, which was shut down permanently last year.
Physicists need the Higgs boson to support their model of how the universe operates and is made up at the subatomic level.
As the Straight Dope explains, the Standard Model of quantum physics succeeds in explaining the relationships between electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force that holds atomic nuclei together, and the weak nuclear force that relates to radioactivity. But the model does not take into account the force of gravity, and fails to explain why subatomic particles such as electrons and quarks have mass.
Scientists believe subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with the “Higgs field,” a quantum field that fills all of space. The hypothesis is that this interaction involves, in essence, Higgs bosons sticking to the subatomic particles and thus gaining mass.
A Wikipedia article on the subject describes the Higgs field as “as a pool of molasses that ‘sticks’ to the otherwise massless fundamental particles that travel through the field.”
And why is the Higgs boson called the “God particle?”
The Straight Dope says the term was popularized after a book of that title, written by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman.
“Lederman says the God particle was so named because (a) it’s short for ‘goddamn particle,’ presumably owing to the difficulty of establishing its existence, and (b) finding proof of said existence would help us understand the ‘mind of God,’” the Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams wrote in 2009.
The Wikipedia article dismisses the term “God particle” as “generally disliked by the scientific community as media hyperbole that misleads readers.”