By Adelle Rodda.
How do you find something so small it can’t be seen under a microscope and you’re not really sure if it exists in the first place? Well, if you’re a particle physicist you spend over US$6.4 billion building the largest machine ever created by man.
That’s exactly what scientists at CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) have done in order to find the Higgs Boson, a particle that is theorised to give other particles mass and the missing piece needed to make the Standard Model complete.
The Standard Model is the theory of how fundamental particles interact with each other. Or more simply put, the stuff the Universe is made of and how it all sticks together. Fundamental particles are the Lego of the Universe and they have fun names like quarks, leptons and bosons. Leptons (the electron is one) are loners, whereas quarks are the more sociable of the particle gang and stick together to form bigger particles like atoms. Bosons are force carrier particles, and as the name would imply they carry a force. The strong force is carried by the creatively named ‘gluon’ that helps glue quarks together and the ‘photon’ carries the electromagnetic force. These particles are pretty well understood by physicists but the thing that has them stumped is why some particles have no mass, some have more mass than others and how they got mass in the first place. Basically, if particles didn’t have mass they would all whizz around at the speed of light and never stick together to form atoms, matter, the Universe and us. Enter the Higgs boson, proposed by British physicist Peter Higgs in the 1960s as a solution to this conundrum. When a particle interacts with the Higgs, the Higgs gives it mass, the more the particles interact, the more mass they get, kind of like a McDonalds or KFC for quarks and leptons.
In order to find out if Peter Higgs is correct and his boson exists, physicists got together and built the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Situated underground on the border of Switzerland and France, the LHC is a 27km circular racetrack where beams of particles are smashed into each other at close to the speed of light. Somewhere (hopefully) in the aftermath of these collisions the Higgs boson will appear. Not everyone is so keen on finding the Higgs though, especially a certain “physicist” named Walter Wagner, who filed a lawsuit to stop the LHC being switched on because he claimed that it would create a black hole that would swallow the planet. Thankfully for science, the judge sided with CERN rather than Walter, a high school science teacher with a degree in botany, which is very different branch (excuse the pun) of science.
Since 2008 the LHC has been producing a whopping 600 million particle collisions per second, but the Higgs thus far, has been proving more elusive than Bigfoot. Today however, is like Christmas eve for physicists and nerds alike, who will no doubt have a restless sleep with the anticipation of tomorrow’s announcement by CERN as to whether or not they have found the Where’s Wally of subatomic particles.