Frisson over boson
On July 4, scientists announced they had discovered a new particle that may be the fabled Higgs boson, an exploit that would rank as the greatest achievement in physics in more than half a century.
But they also created a headache for the jury that will decide the Nobel Prize for Physics on October 9.
Historic though it is, does the announcement deserve the award?
The breakthrough at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) touches on the agonising quest to find the “God particle,” so called for being everywhere and elusive at the same time.
Named after British physicist Peter Higgs, the boson is a key to our concept of matter, as it could explain why particles have mass. Without the Higgs, the Universe as we know it would simply not exist, according to the theory.
“This is the physics version of the discovery of DNA,” says Peter Knight, president of Britain’s Institute of Physics.
But whether the July 4 fireworks will unlock the great prize is unclear.
“It’s a big discovery. That’s all I’m going to say,” Lars Brink, a member of the Nobel committee for physics, said.
Some Nobel-watchers are cautious, given that the new particle has not yet been officially sealed as the Higgs.
Scientists are almost certain it is the coveted beast, for they found it at a range of mass that fits with their calculations.
Yet they still need to confirm this, which means further work to see how it behaves and reacts with other particles. Indeed, there is a remote possibility that the new particle is not the Higgs, although this would be an even more ground shaking announcement.
As Higgs himself readily admits, vital contributions to the theoretical groundwork were made by others.
In fact, six physicists, each building on the work of others, published a flurry of papers on aspects of the theory within four months of each other back in 1964.
The first were Belgians Robert Brout, who died last year, and Francois Englert.
This was followed by Higgs, who was the first to say only a new particle would explain the anomalies of mass. Then came a trio of Americans Dick Hagen and Gerry Guralnik and Briton Tom Kibble.