- Carlos Serrano (@carliserrano)
- BBC News World
On July 4, 2012, researchers at the Large Hadron Collider announced that they had found the last piece of the puzzle, unfinished for 48 years.
The Large Hadron Collider is the largest and most complex machine ever built. The “piece” he discovered is a particle of the subatomic world and one of the basic building blocks of everything we know.
This piece is called the Higgs boson, and proving its existence is one of the greatest achievements of modern physics.
With the discovery of the Higgs boson, the Standard Model was completed, which describes the set of elementary particles that make up everything we know and the forces that interact with each other so that they act as bits of building blocks that come together.
The achievement of the Large Hadron Collider was an adventure that began in 1964, when British physicist Peter Higgs published a theory that predicted that the boson must exist.
According to Higgs himself, this was the “only good idea” he had in his life, and he initially thought his theory was nothing but useless calculations.
But what happened is that the particle he theorized – and which the Large Collider proved – revolutionized our understanding of our universe.
This “good idea” earned him the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics, and ironically ruined his life, he says.
In 2022, ten years have passed since the Large Collider discovered the Higgs boson.
BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service, spoke to two experts about how this particle has helped for a decade answer two of humanity’s big questions: Where did we come from and what are we made of?
For a long time, atoms were thought to be the most elementary particle of all.
Then we learned that these atoms are actually made up of smaller particles: the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus of an atom and the electrons that orbit around that nucleus.
But today we know that even these protons and neutrons can break down into even smaller particles.
In total, 17 fundamental particles were discovered that, when interacting with each other due to the influence of forces, make up the entire universe as we know it.
This set of 17 particles and forces is known as the Standard Model.
These particles fall into two large families: fermions and bosons.
fermions – They are the building blocks of the universe – like pieces of building blocks that, depending on how they are combined, form different atoms. There are 12 fermions, divided into six quarks and six leptons. In other words: all matter as we know it is made up of groups of quarks and leptons. Or in general, everything we see is made up of fermions.
bosons They are the particles that carry the forces that make fermions interact. In total, there are five types of bosons, each of which carries the fundamental forces that make matter react:
1 – Gluon, which holds the strong force that holds quarks together
2 and 3 – W boson and Z boson, which carry the weak force, which leads to the dissolution of the nucleus of an atom and the formation of another atom.
4 – Photons that carry the electromagnetic force.
There is also the most famous force of all, gravity.
It turns out that gravity, at the subatomic level, is so weak that its effect can be largely ignored – so it’s not part of the Standard Model.
Thus, we have the almost perfect Standard Model: the fermion family interacts with the boson family to form the universe.
But we still need to include the fifth boson.
What is the Higgs boson?
We’ve already seen 12 fermions and 4 bosons, which is 16 parts out of 17 parts in the Standard Model.
Only the part that completes the model is missing: the Higgs boson.
A key question needs to be answered: Where do particles such as quarks and leptons get their masses?
The answer is the so-called Higgs field, an invisible environment that permeates the entire universe and imbues the particles traveling in it with mass.
In this Higgs field are the Higgs bosons, which scatter mass in the particles that make up matter.
“The discovery of the Higgs boson has shown that there is something strange that we are all immersed in, and this is known as the Higgs field,” Frank Close, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at the University of Oxford, told BBC World. News.
“Just like fish need submersion in water, we need the Higgs field,” says Close, author of the book. Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Block Puzzle.
In 1964, Peter Higgs was one of the first to theorize about the existence of this field and the first to predict that there should be a particle associated with this field.
But only in 2012, thanks to the Large Hadron Collider, it was possible to notice that this particle, now called the Higgs boson, exists outside the scope of theory.
Why was this discovery so important?
For Saúl Noé Ramos Sánchez, a researcher at the Instituto de Física of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the milestone of discovery of the Higgs boson can be described in three points:
1. This allowed us to know more fully about the elementary particles that we are made of.
“All the particles that make up our atoms are finally understood, including their relationships with other particles,” says Ramos Sanchez.
two. A particle was found different from all the others
The Higgs boson is not like electrons or protons and is responsible for certain reactions that lead to knowledge of the mass of these particles.
In other words, the Higgs boson is the basic piece that tells us why other particles look the way they are.
3. The most accurate theory possible to date has been realized
Ramos Sanchez argues that the Standard Model is “the most accurate theory that humanity has” to date.
Close has a similar opinion: “With a few exceptions, you explain everything we see very well,” says the professor.
Experts agree that after the historic 4th of July 2012, there have been no major discoveries related to particle physics yet.
Some recent experiments at the Large Hadron Collider and at Fermilab, another particle accelerator located in the USA, are giving hints of what could be a new particle or new force, as yet unknown.
If confirmed, the Standard Model will be questioned.
However, the results of these trials are still inconclusive.
“After the discovery of the Higgs boson, the Standard Model became more solid than anything else,” says Ramos Sanchez.
But there are also many questions that the Standard Model cannot answer.
It does not explain, for example, what dark matter is, a mysterious component that makes up 27% of the universe.
Nor does it explain why there is more matter in the universe than antimatter, or why the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
The other big void is that it can’t incorporate the force of gravity.
Theories have been generated for many of these mysteries, but there is no definitive answer yet.
However, none of this means the Standard Model is wrong, experts say.
“I wish he was in a crisis,” Close says. “If it was in a crisis, that would give us clues to build a grand theory that would explain all of this. The problem” with the Standard Model is that it works very well. We know it’s not the ultimate theory, but it is a complete description of everything we can come up with so far.”
According to Close, who interviewed Higgs for his autobiography, the physicist asserts that the boson is “the only good idea” he ever had.
In fact, Higgs initially thought his discovery would be “completely useless,” says Close.
“He thought he had done a simple mathematical trick using what would theoretically give photons mass.”
Also, Higgs was not particularly prolific.
He wrote only 12 studies in his career, and only three of them — related to the Higgs boson — had any connection, according to Close.
“He did not continue to work on it either, and practically did not do anything else in this direction,” explains the professor. It was other people, based on their ideas, who added knowledge until the construction of the Great Collider.
“So it’s possible that the boson is the only good idea for Higgs, but I wonder how many good ideas any of us have?”
behind the paper
In 1964, Higgs wasn’t the only one working on the idea of what is now called the Higgs field.
At the same time, other researchers have presented studies in the same direction.
However, Higgs was the only person who realized that his mathematical idea was correct, that is, it actually existed in nature and was not just a trick to solve theoretical problems.
“If this field is real, we should be able to detect it, and the way to do that should be what we call the Higgs boson today,” Claus explains.
“Higgs was the only one who noticed this, so the boson was properly named.”
“ruined my life”
After the Large Hadron Collider confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson in 2012, it was almost clear to the scientific community that the Higgs would win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
He himself knew that he was the favorite to win the award, so on October 8, 2013, when the big announcement was due to be released, it was his decision… to go away.
Higgs left the house, took a bus and took refuge in a bar for a beer.
In one of his interviews, Claus asked Higgs about the impact of winning the Nobel Prize.
The answer surprised him: Higgs said the award had “ruined my life”.
The physicist explained, “It ended my relatively peaceful existence. I don’t like that kind of publicity, my style is to work aloof, and sometimes I come up with a brilliant idea.”
This explains why Higgs isolated himself on the day the award was announced – even though the strategy had the opposite effect.
“What is the most attractive to journalists?” asks Close. “A guy who won a Nobel Prize and became available for interviews, or someone who wins a Nobel Prize and disappears?”
As of 2022, Peter Higgs is 93 years old, retired and living in Edinburgh, Scotland. She doesn’t use the internet and lives in a building that doesn’t have an elevator, which requires her to go down 84 stairs to get to the street.
For Close, this shows how elusive Peter Higgs, like the famous boson who spent years in hiding, and when he let himself be seen, forever changed the concept of the universe.
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