GENEVA (dpa) – In Geneva, physicists are eagerly waiting for the particle accelerator (LHC) to be up and running again after three good years of maintenance. When the necessary collision energy is reached around July 5, protons will be injected back into the subterranean giant ring in opposite directions and collide with each other at nearly the speed of light.
Rare production and decay processes can be observed during collisions, which caused a sensation in the world exactly ten years ago: the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced in Geneva on July 4, 2012 that the Higgs boson had been found. The particle confirms the existence of the so-called Higgs field, which gives elementary particles their mass.
While experts in Geneva hope to get plenty of new particle physics results from the new Test Track III, colleagues from the US are coming to take a cold shower: the specialist journal Science wrote of the “nightmare of not being able to find anything anymore.” The discovery of the Higgs boson was one of the main reasons for the construction of the particle accelerator in Geneva. Did you accomplish his mission? What if there is nothing left to discover?
Watch two particles at the same time
Is there an envy on the other side of the Atlantic, where there is also a particle accelerator but the Higgs boson has yet to be detected? “You’re standing in front of a desert (at CERN) and you don’t know how big it is,” the magazine quoted University of Minnesota physicist Marvin Marshak as saying.
Michael Dorsen-Diebling, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, sees it differently. “The Higgs boson fits the theory nicely, but because it’s so different from everything else we know, there is still no basic understanding of why it is what it is,” says the Darmstadt native from the German news agency. It will be interesting to see how strong the pairing of known particles of matter is, or what interaction the Higgs boson can have with each other. Since observing the Higgs boson at the same time is extremely rare, more proton collisions must be created.
Dührssen-Debling was around ten years ago when the data experts had been waiting for nearly 50 years were delivered at Cern. Physicists, including Peter Higgs, theoretically predicted the Higgs boson in the 1960s (the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for this purpose), but evidence has been missing for a long time. So how exciting was this discovery at the time at CERN?
Discovery in the bathroom
“There wasn’t a single Eureka moment back then,” says Dührssen-Debling of dpa. Eureka, an ancient Greek word meaning “I found it,” is said to have been called by Archimedes more than 2,000 years ago when he suddenly made a groundbreaking discovery in a bathtub. Particle physicists in Geneva had suspected for months that they were under the influence of sensation. However, billions of proton collisions per second generate huge amounts of data that must first be evaluated on a computer.
“I saw some promising signals in the data, and then some turned into statistical fluctuations,” Dorsen Dibling says of the exciting months leading up to July 2012. He made a big bend with his hand – “Of course there was a lot of excitement.” But physicists should know better. The chance of it being a misinterpretation is said to be less than 1 in 3.5 million. When they got close to that number, they posted a sensation in the world on July 4, 2012.
Particle physicists may turn their noses up, but outside the scientific community the Higgs boson is often referred to as the “God particle.” The name comes from the fact that without the Higgs field, many particles would not have a fundamental mass, so they would lack basic properties and nothing in the universe would be the same. Physicist David Miller found a vivid picture of this: there are a lot of people at a party, symbolizing the Higgs field. When a celebrity walks into a bar, they easily make the first few steps, but then more people gather around them and their progress slows – like elementary particles gain mass in the Higgs field.
Getting to the bottom is worth it
Why do particle physicists still need to know things better? “Basic research,” says Dührssen-Debling. It is always worth it, even if it can often be difficult to predict what can develop from it at first. Cern refers to the devices and procedures that were developed there and are used today in medicine, especially in cancer treatment and the control of tumors. Or the World Wide Web, the starting point for the digital revolution, created by Cern computer specialist Tim Berners-Lee in 1990.
Aside from further research into the Higgs boson, other experiments are being conducted at CERN. The discovery of new particles is not excluded. “There are theories that predict new molecules like a dime,” says Dührssen-Debling. Only experiments can support or refute these theories. According to him, it will also be interesting to find properties in known particles that go against the predictions. There were already early indications of so-called beauty quarks. If confirmed, it would refer to an unknown force of nature and would be a new sensation.
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