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Higgs boson discovery raises new questions

Swiss lab’s breakthrough suggests new directions to go for physicists

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2012

The proclaimed discovery of the Higgs boson, an elusive particle being described as the last piece to the model of subatomic physics, capped off more than a half-decade of work and billions of dollars in research.

Yet while the discovery of the boson — nicknamed "God particle" to the chagrin of many scientists and theologians — may conclude one query into the frontiers of physics, experts already say it will throw open the door to new dimensions of research.

"The universe has many unanswered questions — we hide our ignorance by calling it dark matter," said Dr. Fred Dylla, the director of the American Institute of Physics. "There are many things we don't understand and it keeps science exciting."

Hundreds of top scientists from 38 countries gathered in Switzerland on Wednesday for the announcement of the boson, among them 83-year-old Peter Higgs, who proposed the particle's existence in a series of papers in 1964.

Mr. Higgs' theory offered a solution for an inconsistency in the Standard Model of particle physics, which failed to explain how photons, electrons and other rapidly moving particles could obtain mass. Mr. Higgs and a handful of other scientists suggested the presence of bosons, which create a field for the particles to bounce off, and transmit inertia to give the atom as a whole some semblance of shape.

Without bosons to corral particles, the scientists said atoms, people and the entire universe would comprise nothing more than photons and electrons whizzing aimlessly in empty space.

The problem with proving it arose from the notion that bosons are extremely short-lived, but in the past two weeks scientists at the atom-smashing, large hadron collider facility in Switzerland managed to catch glimpses of a new particle that resembles a boson — during its one-millionth-of-a-second life span.

Scientists now must spend the next several months confirming that these particles are indeed bosons, meeting the rigorous standards in place for physics experiments. Even so, the likelihood that the discovery is false as it stands is about 1 in 3 million; not surprisingly, scientists are beginning to speculate on how the boson may be applied outside the Standard Model.

Mr. Dylla, whose American Institute of Physics represents roughly 135,000 physicists across 10 organizations, said that the boson may at last provide some answers about "dark matter" and "dark energy," two enigmas that apparently constitute no less than 96 percent of the universe and which the Standard Model makes no effort to explain.

He also mentioned that discovery of the boson could give credence to string theory, the research project pioneered by Stephen Hawking and others in which bosons play a crucial role.

"This is a very esoteric theory that produces very few testable hypotheses. But there are a few," said Mr. Dylla, who earned his doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, some scientists are focusing on the moment and the work that still needs to be done to better define the boson discovery.

"The most immediate question is whether this is the [predicted] model of Higgs," said Howard Gordon, a program manager for a large hadron collider facility at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, "or whether it is a more exotic version of another form of physics that we haven't learned about yet."

Either way, it appears accelerator facilities like the one in Switzerland — which was created for the primary purpose of determining whether bosons exist — will remain research centers well after this discovery.

"The [large hadron collider] is just beginning its life as a discovery tool, not ending it," said Mr. Dylla, noting that the $7.5 billion project in Switzerland came online in September 2009 after a worldwide effort of about 10,000 scientists to design it. He estimated the facility will remain a central location in cutting-edge physics research for at least the next decade.

"There is no shortage of things to keep physicists busy, and if they keep building these machines and tools needed for the frontier of physics, the results will have wide applications for ordinary citizens," he said.

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