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WSU helps find possible piece to physics puzzle: Higgs boson (update)

If confirmed, particle would validate decades-old theory

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Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:39 am, Fri Apr 5, 2013.

_Update: Adam Hinton has been given credit for contributing to the story and a factual error has been corrected. The South End regrets the error._

While America celebrated its independence with fireworks, barbecues and parades July 4, the world of science was throwing its own party. They weren’t celebrating hard-won independence from a stuffy old monarch, but rather a discovery that could redefine our understanding of the universe itself.

On that day, the international science community announced it had hit the jackpot on a significant experiment taking place at the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) facility near Geneva, Switzerland.

Physicists had been searching for the Higgs boson, an elusive particle central to physicists’ understanding of how mass — the material that makes up everything — arose in the universe.

CERN scientists found hints of a new particle in December 2011. In July, two groups of physicists performing independent experiments announced they had discovered a new boson, a type of subatomic particle. Preliminary results show a “Higgs-like” boson, which could mean one of the most important moments in the history of physics isn’t far away.

Physicists from Wayne State contributed to one group’s findings, WSU announced in a press release. A team led by Paul Karchin and Robert Harr, both professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, contributed to data analysis and the operation of the experiment.

WSU team members helped analyze measurements produced by the experiment and became familiar with the complicated technology used for testing. They were stationed at the CERN lab in Geneva, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and the WSU campus.

“WSU team members are thrilled to be a part of the historic accomplishment announced today,” Karchin said in the release. “We are excited to embark on new studies exploring the properties of the new phenomenon and the search for new particles that likely accompany it.”

The Higgs boson is named for physicist Peter Higgs, who in 1964 proposed the existence of an energy field that imparts mass to subatomic particles — like quarks and electrons — when they interact with it. That field came to be known as the Higgs field. Higgs also predicted the existence of a boson associated with this field that scientists would be able to detect — the Higgs boson.

Physicists have a theory, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, to predict how all the particles they know about interact. So far it’s been the most successful theory for explaining how the universe works. The Higgs boson is the final piece of that theory; finding it would confirm that physicists’ current understanding of fundamental physics is correct. Without it, physicists can’t explain why mass exists — a major shortcoming.

CERN built the Large Hadron Collider, a gigantic underground track straddling the border between Switzerland and France, so they could smash bits of atoms together and study the leftovers for evidence of the Higgs boson.

Their results seem promising.

CERN physicists gave their results a “5 sigma” level of significance; in physicist-speak, that means it’s extremely unlikely their results are due to chance. The new boson is acting, for all practical purposes the way the Higgs boson should act.

So if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it really a duck? Only time will tell.

WSU’s Harr called CERN’s announcement “a progress report of a continuing experiment.” The “Higgs-like” boson decays very quickly, so it’s hard to determine its exact nature. It could indeed be the Higgs boson described by the Standard Model, or it could be — as some physicists are hoping — a more exciting, exotic variant. Or it could be an imposter. More analysis is needed before a positive identification can be made.

If this new particle turns out to not be the predicted Higgs boson, it would mean a return to the drawing board to search for another boson candidate. A completely unproductive search could mean the Standard Model — physicists’ fundamental explanation of the universe holds together — is incorrect.

On the other hand, if physicists at the LHC really did find the longsought Higgs boson, it could open the door for a swarm of new discoveries.

After decades of research, we may have a conclusion to one of the most interesting searches in the history of physics.

And that’s certainly worth some fireworks.

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