Scientists at CERN have today announced that they’re 99.99% sure that they’ve found a new sub-atomic particle, and that it is likely to be the elusive Higgs boson – often referred to as the “God Particle”. That’s all well and good, but what does it all mean? Let’s break it down…

What is the Higgs boson?

The Higgs boson is a type of particle which is a part of what’s called The Standard Model of particle physics. This is a set of rules that lays out our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

Dr. Andreas Krassnigg, a physicist with the University of Graz in Austria, explains: “This Standard Model describes a set of particles from which we can attempt to build the universe as we know it. In addition, it helps us understand what happens in the universe by having a precise picture of the smallest building blocks of matter and their interactions.”

However, one glaring problem to date has been the lack of proof of the existence of the Higgs boson – this is a key part of the Standard Model and scientists have simply had to assume it exists. If this new particle is the Higgs boson, it will help explain why particles have mass and validate the Standard Model as a true explanation for how the universe is put together.

This video by PHD Comics does a good job to explain the basics of what the Higgs boson is, how it’s been looked for it using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and why physicists care so much.

Why is it important?

Essentially because it proves that our understanding of the basic workings of the universe is correct. If the Higgs boson didn’t exist, the Standard Model would be proved incorrect. Its importance led to the “God Particle” nickname. Physicist-cum-startup entrepreneur at PeerReach, Nico Schoonderwoerd says that it’s “A major milestone for the standard model,” as it validates all the work done, and all the money poured into its discovery.

Krassnigg elaborates: “Picture the Standard Model as a car. Then you could imagine the Higgs boson to be, or provide, the wheels of that car. It had to be decided experimentally whether or not the car (our view of particle physics) actually is as we expected it to be, i.e., whether it actually does have wheels or not.

“For our car this is a question of central importance, since it determines what the car can do and how. While not having wheels would not have been a bad thing automatically – there are other fancier ways to move a car around -, it has now turned out that the wheels seem to be there and that this is the way the car moves.”

Where do we go from here?

So, if it is the Higgs boson that has been discovered, what does that mean for the future? CERN’s own announcement noted: “Positive identification of the new particle’s characteristics will take considerable time and data. But whatever form the Higgs particle takes, our knowledge of the fundamental structure of matter is about to take a major step forward.”

Krassnigg continues his comparison of the Higgs boson with a car to explain what’s next: “Measurements and data analysis will continue, since physicists still need to find out in the months and years to come what the wheels are like: everything standard (i.e. as expected) or extra-large rims or something even more unexpected (perhaps on fire?).”

Just because the Standard Model appears to be validated, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more to discover in the field of particle physics, too, as Schoonderwoerd explains: “The standard model doesn’t explain gravitation at all. So physicists have been trying to unify the gravitation theory with the Standard Model in advance models with names like Supersymmetry.” He says that many of the people investigating these theories hope that accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider will continue to run at increasing energy levels, uncovering new particles that may explain how gravity works in a way that fits into the Standard Model.

But how does it affect the rest of us?

This is all very good for theoretical physicists – but will the discovery affect our every day lives? While it’s impossible to say if new fields of technology will open up as a result of the discovery of the Higgs boson, Krassnigg points out that “In addition to the beauty of the process of discovery itself, which is a very rewarding experience, in my opinion the biggest difference to the world we live in are spin-offs coming from CERN or other high-energy physics laboratories with regard to technology.” Take the World Wide Web, for example, developed at CERN by Sir Tim Berners Lee. Consider the huge amount of work done to develop the Large Hadron Collider  – that research could well have uses outside the realm of physics.

Another real-world benefit is people, says Dr Simon George, who is involved in the ATLAS experiment using the Large Hadron Collider; “The highly trained PhDs who get snapped up by the private sector, and enthused children who will become our scientists in the future.”

Whether or not we see technological advancements as a direct result of today’s announcement, perhaps that’s not important. Krassnigg is hugely positive about the wider effect of the work behind it. “I consider these latest results an excellent and reassuring confirmation of our (meaning we as a global society) target-oriented ability to make use of and invest in science and technology. In particular, a lot of amazing work, time, strategic thinking, skill, and creativity were needed to arrive at today’s ‘state-of-the-art’ announcement. Congratulations to all who contributed!”

We agree – congratulations – it’s a good day to be a particle physicist.

Image credit: Jurvetson