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The "God Particle": Have Your Cake and Eat It Too!

August 31, 2010 - 4:04pm

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Next time you’re at a birthday party and you’re sinking your teeth into the first bite of cake, consider this: What do you know is in that cake? Eggs? Flour? Maybe sugar? You “know” these things because they are common ingredients in many baked goods. You don’t necessarily see the eggs. You probably can’t even directly taste them. But you know they’re there, right? Or you can at least make a very educated guess that somewhere along the line – this cake had to be made with the ingredient of eggs.

Kick it up a few notches into the world of advanced physics, where scientists work under many similar assumptions. In particle physics for example, physicists work with a mathematical recipe known as the Standard Model. They “know” its ingredients – even though one of those ingredients has never actually been seen. 

Let’s back up. The Standard Model is a theory in particle physics that is the best known way to explain the dynamics of subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons).  According to the Model, these subatomic particles are composed of a combination of 12 fundamental particles. However, one of these particles – the Higgs boson – remains elusive.  Sometimes called the “God Particle,” the Higgs boson is believed to be the key to the origin of particle mass, and there is a worldwide race to be the first to “discover” it experimentally.

You need a particle accelerator to create the conditions where you could actually see the Higgs boson, and physicists working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory are in the hunt. They haven’t found it yet, but they now know where not to look. Since the Higgs boson is linked to particle mass, scientists used past experimental data to bookend the “mass realm” where the Higgs boson might be found. The physicists at Fermilab then began scanning regions within the allowed mass range. The team of physicists narrowed the range and now report that they have eliminated about a quarter of this mass range where it is safe to say the Higgs boson will not be found. 

Their ground-breaking research hints that the Higgs could lie at the lower end of the mass range, which would make it possible to find using Fermilab’s Tevatron particle collider. By identifying this elusive particle experimentally, the scientists expect to gain new insight into the origins of the universe.

Andy Oare is a New Media Specialist in the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Energy.

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