GENEVA (AP) - 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 help explain why all matter has mass and crack open a
new realm of physics.
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 shape our understanding of 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 shed tears reflecting on the decades of work
that brought them to this momentous occasion.
The new particle appears to share many of the same qualities as
the one predicted by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others and
is perhaps the biggest accomplishment at CERN since its founding in
1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.
Rolf Heuer, director of CERN, said the newly discovered
subatomic particle is a boson, but he stopped just shy of claiming
outright that it is the Higgs boson itself - an extremely fine
"As a layman, I think we did it," he told the elated crowd.
"We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle that is
consistent with a Higgs boson."
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 an object weight.
The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton's early theories:
Gravity was there all the time before Newton explained it. The
Higgs boson was believed to be there, too. And now that scientists
have actually seen something much like it, they can put that
knowledge to further use.
The center's atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider
on the Swiss-French border, sends protons whizzing in a circle 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.
Most of the particles that result from the collisions exist for
only the smallest fractions of a second. But finding a Higgs-like
boson was one of the biggest challenges in physics: Out of some 500
trillion collisions, just several dozen produced "events" with
significant data, said Joe Incandela, leader of the team known as
CMS, with 2,100 scientists.
Each of the teams confirmed Wednesday that they had "observed"
a new subatomic particle - a boson. Heuer said the discovery was
"most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out what kind of
Higgs boson it is."
As the leaders of the two teams presented their evidence,
applause punctuated their talks.
"Thanks, nature!" joked Fabiola Gianotti, head of the team
called ATLAS, with 3,000 scientists, drawing laughter from the
Later, she told reporters that the standard model of physics is
still incomplete because "the dream is to find an ultimate theory
that explains everything. We are far from that."
Incandela said it was too soon to say definitively whether the
particle was exactly the same as envisioned by Higgs and others,
who proposed the existence of an energy field where all particles
interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson.
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 built in a 27-kilometer (17-mile)
Outside CERN, the announcement seemed to ricochet around the
world with some of the speed and energy of the particle itself.
Marc Sher, a professor of physics at William & Mary College,
said most observers concluded in December that the Higgs boson
would soon be found, but he was "still somewhat stunned by the
The phrase "God particle" was coined by Nobel Prize-winning
physicist Leon Lederman, but it's used by laymen, not physicists,
as an easier way of explaining how the theory got started.
Incandela said the last undiscovered piece of the standard model
could be a variant of the Higgs that was predicted or something
else that entirely changes the way scientists think about how
matter is formed.
"This boson is a very profound thing we have found," he said.
"We're reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we never
have done before. We've kind of completed one particle's story. ...
Now we're way out on the edge of exploration."
The discovery is so fundamental to the laws of nature, Incandela
said, that it could spawn a new era of technology and development
the way that Newton's laws of gravity led to basic equations of
mechanics that made the industrial revolution possible.
"This is so far out on a limb, I have no idea where it will be
applied," he added. "We're talking about something we have no
idea what the implications are and may not be directly applied for