Physicists discover new fundamental particle, likely to be the Higgs boson

Thu, Jul 5, 2012, 01:00

PHYSICISTS HAVE announced the discovery of a new fundamental particle, one previously only described in theory. The international scientific community has hailed it as a finding as important as describing the structure of DNA or the discovery of penicillin.

Details of the discovery were revealed yesterday morning by the scientists who made it at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, on the France-Switzerland border. And while scientists there were reluctant to declare they had discovered the long-sought Higgs boson, scientists elsewhere were more than willing to declare that the so-called “God particle” had been found.

The discovery was based on data coming from Cern’s large hadron collider, the most powerful atom smasher in the world.

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma,” said Fabiola Gianotti, spokeswoman for the Atlas experiment team. Hers was one of two research groups who presented data at a specially-convened scientific conference.

“This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it is the heaviest boson ever found,” said Joe Incandela, spokesman for the second group involved with the experiment on the collider.

No one doubted that the particle would indeed be declared the long-sought Higgs boson. The Higgs was the last missing particle in what is known as the Standard Model, a theory that seeks to explain all of the forces of nature.

The Higgs is a key component given its role in allowing other massless particles to acquire mass. Theorised in 1964 by particle physicist Peter Higgs and other colleagues, the final experimental proof of the boson will validate the assumptions made in the Standard Model.

Prof Higgs, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, was at the scientific meeting yesterday. He congratulated the research teams involved.

The particle’s discovery represented a “milestone in our understanding of nature”, said Cern director general Rolf Heuer.

“This is the biggest step forward in our understanding of the universe since the discovery of antimatter almost 100 years ago,” said Dr Ronan McNulty of University College Dublin. He leads an Irish research group at Cern. “It is a major triumph for physics, for global collaboration, and for humanity itself.”

Prof Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, said the discovery of the Higgs was as significant to physics as the discovery of DNA was to biology. “It sets the course for a brand new adventure in our efforts to understand the fabric of our universe,” he said.

* The Royal Irish Academy and The Irish Times have organised a free Higgs questions and answers session with Prof Rolf Heuer of Cern. It takes place at 11.30am on Saturday, July 14th, during the Euroscience Open Forum 2012.

Others taking part will be Belfast-born Dr Steve Myers, who is in charge of accelerators at Cern; Oxford theorist Prof Frank Close; Prof Themis Bowcock, an experimental physicist at Cern; and physicist Dr Tara Shears, who works on the Cern experiment, the LHCb. It takes place at the academy on Dawson Street, Dublin. Booking is essential. For details, see