A Landmark Day for Science

by Richard on July 4, 2012

Today was the biggest day for physics for many years, with the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Particle. Actually, as with all things scientific, it’s never quite as simple as that. In reality, the probabilities of it having been found are now overwhelming.

The announcement from CERN was made in a webcast streamed live to the world, which was quite appropriate as CERN is where the World Wide Web began just over 20 years ago (anyone questioning the value of scientific research need look no further than spin-offs like that!)

Webcast

The spokesperson for the CMS team Joe Incandela gave the first presentation. He was followed by Fabiola Gianotti spokesperson for the ATLAS collaboration. The results from both detectors independently showed that a new particle was being detected with a mass in the range 125-126 GeV. With excitement mounting, at the end of the two hour-long talks, director general Rolf Heuer summed up with the words: ‘If I was a layman, I would say I think we have it – you agree?’ and the lecture theatre erupted with cheers and rapturous applause. Peter Higgs, who was in the audience, took off his glasses and appeared to brush away a tear. Watching the climax of the webcast, I felt quite emotional myself.

First Major Discovery for Some Time

Finding the Higgs is arguably the most sensational discovery in particle physics in the four decades since the discovery of the fourth quark ‘charm’ in November 1974. I was at school at the time and knew nothing of the discovery until a couple of years later (around the time that Hawkwind released their classic album ‘Quark, Strangeness and Charm’).

The next comparable discovery came in 1983, while I was an undergraduate. In that year CERN tracked down the exchange particles – the W and Z bosons – that are responsible for producing the weak force. As soon as the W and Z were found, the hunt was on for the Higgs boson, as it was required to explain why the W and Z bosons are such massive particles, whereas the photon which plays exactly the same role for electromagnetism has no mass.

It has taken several decades of technological advance, enormous hard work and dedication by large teams of physicists from all round the world to make this momentous discovery possible. As Rolf Heuer was keen to point out, it was a truly global effort.

The discovery of the Higgs is tremendously important for physicists. Not only does it complete the particle table of the standard model, but it opens up a new door onto physics beyond the standard model.

As with all important discoveries, answering one question leads to many more. Exciting times lie ahead!

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