Scientists may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, or “God particle”, which is thought to give mass to the basic building blocks of nature.
Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics lab near Geneva, announced the findings on July 22.
The world’s most powerful atom smasher hunts for signs of new physics by slamming subatomic particles together at nearly the speed of light in a 29km circular tunnel beneath the French-Swiss border.
Speaking at the meeting, teams working on two of the collider’s huge detectors, Atlas and CMS, independently reported unusual bumps in their data that could be the first hints of the particle.
Physicists stressed that it was too early to know whether the signals were due to the missing particle. Bumps that look like new discoveries can be caused by statistical fluctuations in data, flaws in computer models and other glitches, they said.
“We cannot say anything today, but clearly it’s intriguing,” Fabiola Gianotti, spokeswoman for the 3,000-strong Atlas team, said. She said the picture would become clearer as the groups gathered more data and combined results in the next few months.
Guido Tonelli, spokesman for the CMS group, said more data was needed to understand whether the bumps were due to “statistical fluctuations or possible hints of a signal”.
The long-sought particle was first postulated in 1964 by Peter Higgs, a physicist at Edinburgh University, in a theory that described how fundamental particles gained mass from an invisible field that pervaded the cosmos. The field has been compared to a snowfield that clings to particles and slows them down to different extents. Light particles pass through the field swiftly as if they have skis on, while heavy particles trudge through as though walking barefoot.
The boson was nicknamed the “God particle” in 1993 by the Nobel prize-winning physicist, Leon Lederman. The moniker is detested by Higgs. “I find it embarrassing because, though I’m not a believer myself, I think it is the kind of misuse of terminology which I think might offend some people,” he said.
From previous work, the Higgs boson was thought to have a mass somewhere between 114 and 185GeV (gigaelectronvolts) — one GeV is roughly equivalent to the mass of a proton, a subatomic particle found in atomic nuclei.
The Atlas team reported a Higgs-like bump in their data between 120 and 140GeV. In a later session, the CMS group announced two bumps in the same region.
Matt Strassler, a theoretical physicist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, commented on his blog: “Exciting ... but far too early to be sure this is anything interesting.” He added: “This is certainly something we’ll be watching.”