Boson Hunting

The Higgs Boson may be just one of many undiscovered particles out there. The search is on.


By Ed Sperling
It’s not the “God particle” or anything even remotely connected to the formation of the universe. But in particle physics, the powerful forces that keep the tiny particles in an atom confined to a very small space are now coming into much better focus.


The reason is a combination of good theories and very expensive colliders—new colliders are expected to run an estimated $20 billion. They’re expensive to run, too. So much electricity is diverted to speeding up atomic material in Cern, in fact, that it has to be closed down during the winter months when that power is diverted into heating.

But in March of this year, the missing particle in particle physics that was first theorized by Peter Higgs in 1964 was discovered amid gigabytes of data produced in one split-second crash of particles at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern. The collider, which was first turned on in 2008, accelerates protons to 99.999999% of the speed of light and then smashes them together using two concentric rings that are 27km long, each accelerating those protons in opposite directions.

Calling this a particle may be a misnomer, though. Particles are actually pieces of fields observed over time, and the Higgs field has a value that is not zero even in an empty space—which is why it was the subject of so much media attention.

“The job of the Higgs field is to glue nuclear forces at a short range,” said Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. “You can’t see it. You can only see it vibrate.”

Carroll, speaking at a dinner hosted by Mentor Graphics this week, said the purpose of the Higgs Boson, as well as other particles such as gluons, fermions, quarks, squarks, and other types of bosons, all create fields that keep the basic elements of the universe together in very small spaces. In effect, they give matter its form.

“The Higgs field has a value at every point in space,” he said. “That also gives a reason why fermions have mass. It lets electrons sit in mass because it slows them down.”

The Higgs boson was the last particle that was theorized but not discovered until this year. But Carroll said that for particle physicists, the search is on for many more particles—and new revenue sources for even larger colliders that can identify those particles. So far, the only country that seems to be showing interest is Japan, he noted.

What’s particularly interesting for these scientists, though, is dark matter and dark energy, which remain the stuff of pure theory. “Most of the mass in the universe has never been created on Earth,” Carroll said.