Dozens of MIT physicists were part of the team that found what might be the Higgs boson. What does their discovery mean, and what’s next for particle physics?
Today CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced the most conclusive evidence yet for the existence of the Higgs boson (at 5 sigma), a long-elusive cornerstone of the Standard Model of physics. This subatomic particle, first postulated in the 1960s and widely sought ever since, is thought to underlie the origins of mass.
More than 50 MIT physicists and students were part of the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, representing that experiment’s largest contingent of physicists from any American university. MIT Professor of Physics Christoph Paus is one of two lead investigators (with Albert De Roeck of CERN) on the CMS Higgs search, which comprises roughly 500 scientists.
Paus spoke with MIT News about the Institute’s contribution to this apparent breakthrough in particle physics, as well as the result’s significance for our understanding of the universe.
Q. What are the implications of this newly discovered particle? Why should non-physicists care about this?
A. The search for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider is the culmination of research over the last half-century. This particle is inextricably intertwined with an incredibly mundane-sounding question: “What is the physics of motion?”
Motion ties together the fundamental concepts of space, time and mass: Space and time are linked through velocity, while mass is the resistance to changes in velocity. Explaining motion was important enough that Aristotle sought to do so, and his answer stood for almost 2,000 years. But penetrating more deeply into the mysteries of motion led to the revolutions of Galileo, Newton and Einstein.
In this same tradition, the Higgs boson holds the promise of beginning to finally elucidate the fundamental origins of mass. We cannot yet say whether the phenomenon we are reporting today is indeed the Higgs; that will take much more data to determine. But so far it fulfills our search criteria, and if confirmed, will set an important milestone in our understanding of nature. Should we be observing something other than the Higgs — well, that may be even more important.