Where did everything come from? This is perhaps the biggest mystery that science has been striving to answer for decades, if not centuries - how the universe came to be. Mankind’s most curious minds have been yearning to figure out what it is exactly that keeps the universe going as it does now and what is behind the creation of potentially millions of planets and clusters of stars residing within many galaxies.
Over the years, various theories have been presented by men and women of science that seek to explain what it is that governs all forms of matter and energy and why these things behave the way they do. With so many of these postulations, it has become a major objective of the scientific field of physics to perhaps combine all existing theories and laws about the universe and unify them into a single and cohesive “theory of everything.”
The Standard Model
For around the latter half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the new millennium, particle physics is largely governed by what is referred to as the “Standard Model” of Physics. The Standard Model in particle physics is, for the moment, the most widely-accepted theory that provides a decent explanation concerning the behavior of all forms of matter and energy in the universe - particularly, the interaction of fundamental particles with elementary forces that exist in nature.
According to the Standard Model, there are two types of fundamental particles: fermions, which are what matter is composed of; and bosons, which carry forces. These particles are identified and ordered in terms of several properties, specifically mass. The mystery surrounding these particles is that while their mass can be measured, scientists could not say for certain where exactly their mass originated from and why they have such masses in the first place.
The Higgs Field
So, what explains the fact these elementary particles have mass? Well, that’s where the Higgs Field comes in. In terms of the Standard Model, the Higgs Field is known as a hypothetical force field which cannot be seen but is said to exist in every area of the entire universe. It is also this field that gives mass to various elementary particles like quarks and electrons.
A particle’s interaction with the Higgs Field when passing through it is theorized to be the one that gives the particle its mass. And the more that particle interacts with the invisible field, the more mass it contains. And so, according to this theory, without the Higgs Field, nothing would exist in the way that they do now - not humans, not Earth, not the stars, and not the many galaxies in the universe.
But how do we know the Higgs Field actually exists? Many particle physicists believe that among the final missing pieces that could complete the puzzle, the “god particle” - one of the universe’s “force particles” - will be the one to prove the field’s existence and consequently provide a better understanding of the current Standard Model.
The "God Particle" or the Higgs Boson
The term “God particle” was coined around the 1990s by Leon Lederman, a physicist and Nobel laureate who published a book about particle physics and discussed science’s pursuit to discover a specific elementary particle referred to as the Higgs boson. Many scientists dislike the moniker “god particle” and would prefer to use the official term “Higgs boson,” but what is it exactly? And why is it so important in proving the existence of Higgs Field and evaluating the Standard Model?
The god particle or the Higgs boson was proposed by Peter Higgs around the 1960s as a necessary element to support the possibility of an invisible field permeating the universe. And to many particle physicists that agree with Higgs, the hypothetical existence of the Higgs Field requires science to also recognize the presence of the Higgs boson.
As a basic example, picture a ball floating in a swimming pool. The ball is a particle while the pool is the Higgs field. The water of the pool is the one that gives the ball its mass. And if you excite the water by dropping a ball in the pool, it would cause a splash. According to quantum mechanics, this splash is the Higgs boson. And essentially, this “god particle” is an excitation of the invisible Higgs Field. This means the key to validating the existence of the Higgs Field lies in finding the Higgs boson, which some physicists believe could somehow be detected through the use of highly sophisticated scientific equipment.
CERN's Search for the Higgs Boson Using the Large Hadron Collider
Theoretically, particle physicists had predicted that recording the existence of the Higgs boson cannot be accomplished by man-made instruments as the particle is too fleeting. And so, one option they came up with that could confirm the creation of a god particle is by identifying and studying the particles it decays into.
This next-to-impossible search for the Higgs boson became among the main motivations in the 10-billion-dollar construction of the Large Hadron Collider by the European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN.
The Large Hadron Collider or LHC is essentially an oval tunnel that stretches 17 miles under the border of Switzerland and France. It’s basically like a racetrack for when particles of matter are smashed together. This is made possible by the fact that surrounding its tunnel is around 9,000 superconducting magnets. These magnets accelerate the abundant stream of photons which travel inside the LHC in both directions almost to the speed of light. At this speed, the protons travel through the tunnel around 11,000 times per second, and with the use of the superconducting magnets, these photons can be directed to collide with each other for millions of times in only a blink of an eye. Sparks of particles are produced by these collisions as a result, and the debris of these particles are the ones captured, recorded and analyzed by the scientists’ high-powered computers.
Among these particles, scientists hoped to detect even the most minuscule droplet of the Higgs boson particle. But because the particle is anticipated to be unstable, they estimated that it would only take a fraction of a second before the god particle disintegrated into other particles. It is in these other particles that scientists hoped to find a pattern of decay that could potentially be the fingerprint of the Higgs boson.
The Tentative Discovery of the Higgs Boson Particle
Collecting data using the Large Hadron Collider officially begun in early 2010, with ATLAS and CMS - two of the main teams in particle detection at LHC - tasked to pinpoint with accuracy and precision the mass range where the Higgs boson could exist. The two teams worked independently from the other, refraining from discussing their work outside of their respective groups. It was only around the end of 2011 that the two team leaders met with the director general of CERN. It was then revealed that each team held suspicions that they may have finally found the Higgs boson, having narrowed down its mass at around 125 GeV.
By July 2012, CERN announced that the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider resulted to the discovery of a new boson particle with the mass range of 125 and 126 GeV. Both independent experiments reached a local significance of 5 sigma - the conventional standard observed in particle physics before a discovery is officially declared. This meant that there was only one chance out of 3.5 million that each of the discoveries of the ATLAS and CMS teams was nothing more than a random fluctuation.
It would take months of further studies before CERN would confirm with some degree of confidence that the new particle they discovered could potentially be the Higgs boson, which they did so in March 2013. By October of that same year, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for coming up with the theory that led to the discovery of a new fundamental particle and for furthering the current understanding of subatomic particles and their mass.
Considering the amazing scientific breakthrough achieved by scientists using the LHC, can we now say with absolute certainty that discovery made at CERN was actually the Higgs Boson?
Well, at this point, men and women of science are refraining from positively saying so. The truth of the matter is our ability to understand the universe is still very much limited, and the most intelligent minds of mankind know better than to automatically jump to conclusions. What can be definitively said for the time being is that even after several tests following its discovery, the boson particle detected using the LHC remains until now consistent with the predictions of the Standard Model of particle physics. But whether it is actually the much sought-after god particle, more data is required to conclude as such.
In a field where advancement is determined by the improvement or replacement of theoretical models, it can be said that our determination to find the Higgs boson particle is a step in the right direction for scientific exploration. And to many physicists, the discovery of this so-called “God particle” will only just be the beginning of mankind’s passionate pursuit of understanding the origin of everything.