Particle discovery is game changer for understanding the universe

Whether discovery is a Higgs or not, particle could explain dark matter, anti-matter, how universe began

Physicists trying to understand dark matter, anti-matter and the origin of the universe say the key to these great mysteries may lie with the discovery of a sub-atomic particle, whether it's the elusive Higgs boson or not.

"This is a keystone," said A.J. Stewart Smith, physicist and dean for research at Princeton University. "This will give us more of an understanding of why everything exists ... This is huge in magnitude and scope."

On Wednesday, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced the discovery of a new particle, and early indications point to it being the Higgs boson, which has such great mystery and scientific importance that it has been dubbed the God particle.

The Higgs boson is a theoretical sub-atomic particle that is thought to be the reason that everything has mass. Basically, without mass -- without the Higgs boson -- there would be no nuclear structure to anything, so there would be no trees, no people, no plants, no stars.

Professor Peter Higgs, a British physicist, first suggested the existence of the mass-causing particle in the 1960s. As it became a cornerstone of physics theory, the search to find the particle was on.

While CERN scientists would not go so far as to say definitively that the particle is the Higgs boson, first indications point in that direction.

For instance, Smith noted that the particle's mass is what scientists expected for a Higgs. The way it decays and what it decays into also go along with what would be expected for a Higgs boson.

However, these are initial tests. Many more will be required to determine if the discovery is a Higgs boson.

Antonio Boveia, a physicist at the University of Chicago and part of the CERN team, said more data is needed for study but that information will come from more particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle collider in the world.

The collider is scheduled to run for the rest of this year but then will be shut down for two years for a power upgrade. If scientists don't have enough data by December to prove or disprove that the particle is a Higgs, they'll have to wait two years.

"We'll have some degree of confidence by the end of the year, but it's an open question as to if we'll have enough," said Boveia, who called finding the particle the most exciting discovery in 30 years. "But probably not."

However, the fact that scientists have discovered a new particle, whether it ends up being the Higgs boson or not, will be a game changer in the world of physics, and is likely to change the way we understand the world around us.

Smith said the most exciting outcome would be if the particle is not the Higgs.

"If it isn't the Higgs, what in God's name is it?" he said. "It would change our thinking in a pretty profound way ... It will all depend on what it is. It's hard to even imagine."

Boveia said physicists use a theory called the standard model for describing the basic building blocks of nature. Essentially, it's a model of how the universe is made and held together. If the recently discovered particle isn't a Higgs, and is instead a new particle, then that standard model is incomplete, he explained.

"If it's a brand new particle, it will be extremely exciting," Boveia added. "We'll have to find a new way to talk about nature."

But if the particle is a Higgs boson, then scientists will know that a key piece of the way the fundamentals of the universe are understood is correct.

However, the discovery will move scientists beyond affirming what they've already believed.

Physicists and astronomers still have questions without a real path to finding the answers. What happened to anti-matter? What is dark matter? What is dark energy? What was going on when the universe was first formed?

If the particle is a Higgs boson, and if scientists can begin to study and understand it, it could lead to answers to some of these great mysteries, Smith said.

"You can imagine the calculations it takes to understand what was going on at the beginning of the universe," he added. "The role of Higgs is absolutely fundamental. What caused particles to have mass and to join with each other? The universe would have no structure without Higgs. This will immensely accelerate our knowledge of the universe."

For instance, at the beginning of the universe, there was an equal number of particles and anti-particles - matter and anti-matter. These particles had opposite electric charges, Smith said.

It's believed that when matter and anti-matter collided, they turned back into energy. But if there is still matter in the world, what happened to those matter-busting collisions? While the anti-matter has simply seemed to disappear, where did it go? What process left us with matter but not anti-matter?

"Higgs could be connected to this imbalance. Nobody knows," Smith said. "If there are Higgs to be found, there could be possibilities [for scientists to understand this.]"

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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