CERN physicists hail evidence of game-changing discovery of subatomic particle

Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smashing facility near here claimed the discovery of a new subatomic particle on Wednesday. They found it to be “consistent” with the long-sought Higgs boson, popularly known as the “God particle” that helps explain what gives size and shape to all matter in the universe.

Graphic: New particle could be Higgs boson

“We have now found the missing cornerstone of particle physics,” Rolf Heuer, Director of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), told scientists amid cheers and standing ovation. “As a layman, I think we did it,” he said. “We’ve a discovery. We’ve observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”

The Higgs boson, which until now was a theoretical particle, is seen as the key to understanding why matter has mass. It is mass that combines with gravity to give an object weight. The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton’s discovery of it. Gravity existed even before Newton explained it. But now scientists see something much like the Higgs boson and can put that knowledge to further use.

CERN’s atom smasher, the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, has for years been creating high-energy collisions of protons to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorise occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.

Two independent teams at CERN said they had both “observed” a new subatomic particle, a boson. Dr. Heuer called it “most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out what kind of Higgs boson it is.”

Asked whether the find is a discovery, he answered: “As a layman, I think we have it. But as a scientist, I have to say, “’What do we have?’”

The leaders of the two CERN teams, Joe Incandela, head of CMS with 2,100 scientists, and Fabiola Gianotti, head of ATLAS with 3,000 scientists, each presented in complicated scientific terms what was essentially extremely strong evidence of a new particle.

Dr. Incandela said it was too soon to say definitively whether what has been discovered is indeed the “standard model” Higgs that Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others predicted in the 1960s. They did that as part of a standard model theory of physics involving an energy field where particles interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson. “The” Higgs or “a” Higgs that was the question on Wednesday. “It is consistent with a Higgs boson as is needed for the standard model,” Dr. Heuer said. “We can only call it a Higgs boson, not the Higgs boson.”

“It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime,” he said, calling it a huge achievement for the proton-smashing collider built in a 27-km tunnel.

The stunning work elicited standing ovations and frequent applause at a packed auditorium in CERN as Dr. Gianotti and Dr. Incandela each took their turn. Dr. Incandela called it “a Higgs-like particle,” and said “we know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.”

“Thanks, nature!” Dr. Gianotti said to laughs, giving credit for the discovery. Later, she said that “the standard model [of physics] is not complete,” but that “the dream is to find an ultimate theory that explains everything we are far from that.”

The phrase “God particle” was coined by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman but is used by laymen, not physicists, as an easier way to explain how the subatomic universe works and got started.

Dr. Incandela said the last undiscovered piece of the standard model could be a variant of the Higgs that was predicted, or something else that entirely changes the way scientists think of how matter is formed. “This boson is a very profound thing we’ve found,” he said. “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we never have done before. We’ve kind of completed one particle’s story... now, we’re way out on the edge of exploration.”