GENEVA – Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher hailed the discovery of the missing cornerstone of physics Wednesday, cheering the apparent end of a decades-long quest for a new subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, or God particle, which could explain why all matter has mass and crack open a new realm of subatomic science.
First proposed as a theory in the 1960s, the maddeningly elusive Higgs had been hunted by at least two generations of physicists who believed it would help explain how the universe began and how its most elemental pieces fit together.
As the highly technical findings were announced by two independent teams involving more than 5,000 researchers, the usually sedate corridors of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, erupted in frequent applause and standing ovations. Physicists who spent their careers in pursuit of the particle shed tears.
The new particle appears to share many of the same qualities as the one predicted by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others and may be the biggest achievement at CERN since its founding in 1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.
The Higgs, which until now had been purely theoretical, is regarded as key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give all objects weight.
The center’s atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider, sends protons whizzing around a circular 17-mile underground tunnel at nearly the speed of light to create high-energy collisions. The aftermath of those impacts can offer clues about dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.
Higgs, who was invited to be in the audience, said Wednesday’s discovery appears to be close to what he predicted.
It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime, he said, calling the discovery a huge achievement for the proton-smashing collider.