What is the 'God particle'?

Posted at 07/04/12 7:16 PM

PARIS - The following is a factfile on the Higgs boson, which has been dubbed as the "God particle":

What is it?

The Higgs boson is conceived as a sub-atomic particle that confers substance.

It is conceived as existing in a treacly, invisible field that was created after the "Big Bang" and pervades the Universe. Higgs bosons "stick" to fundamental particles of matter, dragging on them, and then decay themselves into another form.

Some of these particles interact more with the Higgs than others and thus have greater mass, according to the theory. But particles of light, also called photons, are impervious to it and have no mass.

Why is it important?

The origin of mass -- meaning the resistance of an object to being moved -- has been fiercely debated for decades.

Finding the Higgs boson would vindicate the so-called Standard Model of physics, a theory that developed in the early 1970s, which says the Universe is made from 12 particles which provide the building blocks for all matter.

These fundamental particles are divided into a bestiary comprising six leptons and six quarks, which have exotic names such as "strange," "up", "tau" and "charm."

Why is it called the 'Higgs boson'?

The name comes from a British physicist, Peter Higgs, today aged 83, who conceived of a field of mass-conferring particles in 1964 and became the first to publish his idea.

Important theoretical work was also done separately by Belgian physicists Robert Brout, who died in 2011, and Francois Englert, 79.

Bosons are non-matter particles which are force carriers, or messengers that act between matter particles.

The interaction gives rise to three fundamental forces -- the strong force, the weak force and the electromagnatic force. There is a fourth force, gravity, which is suspected to be caused by a still-to-be found boson named the graviton.

How has the Higgs been hunted?

The quest for the Higgs has been carried out at colliders: giant machines that smash particles together and sift through the sub-atomic debris that tumbles out.

The big daddy of these is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), operated by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in a ring-shaped tunnel deep underground near Geneva.

Smashups generated at the LHC briefly generate temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the Sun, replicating the conditions that occurred just after the Universe's creation in the "Big Bang" nearly 14 billion years ago.

But these concentrations of energy, while violent, occur only at a tiny scale.

On Wednesday, CERN scientists said they had found a new particle that was "consistent" with the Higgs, but further work was needed to determine what it was.

Why 'The God Particle'?

The Higgs has become known as the "God particle," the quip being that, like God, it is extremely powerful, exists everywhere but is hard to find.

In fact, the origin of the name is rather less poetic.

It comes from the title of a book by Nobel physicist Leon Lederman whose draft title was "The Goddamn Particle," to describe the frustrations of trying to nail the Higgs.

The title was cut back to "The God Particle" by his publisher, apparently fearful that "Goddamn" could be offensive.