Years ago, Stephen Hawking bet a fellow scientist from the University of Michigan $100 that the Higgs Boson particle would never be discovered.
In an interview with the BBC, Hawking said: “It seems I have just lost $100.” On Wednesday, scientists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, controversially dubbed “the God particle.”
“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti in a statement on July 4, “but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”
The existence of the Higgs Boson was predicted more than half a century ago by Peter Higgs, who presented a theoretical physical model predicting the existence of the particle in 1964. The discovery, however, required one of the biggest, most complex, and most expensive pieces of technology in the history of physics research. The research is conducted through the use of the Large Hadron Collider, which smashes protons together at almost the speed of light in a massive underground laboratory.
Hawking says: “This is an important result and should earn Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize.”
He goes on to say, however, that “it is a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect,” whereas the existence of the Higgs Boson was predicted half a century ago.
Predicted or not, the discovery is an exciting one for physicists. One major problem in physics is explaining why some particles, such as solid matter, have mass while others, such as light particles, do not. In the model proposed by Dr. Higgs, the Higgs Boson particles exist in an invisible, ubiquitous particle field. This field was generated by the big bang, which occurred 13.7 billion years ago. Some particles take on mass when they collide with the Higgs Boson particles. Others, such as light particles, do not encounter the particle and acquire mass. The Higgs Boson particles also slow the other particles that collide with them.
The researchers at CERN report that their findings are still preliminary but that they are fairly confident in their discovery. Two different laboratories at CERN found the particle, and both reported only a 0.00006 percent chance that the results only resulted from a mathematical anomaly.
There is still, however, a small chance for Hawking to get his “unexpected results.” Yves Sirois, a physicist at CERN, reported that “It may be the Higgs boson, but it may also be something far bigger, which opens the door towards a new theory that goes beyond the Standard Model.”
“It’s hard not to get excited by these results,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci in a statement. “We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data.”