It’s been exactly 10 years to the day since detection of the Higgs boson — the elusive particle associated with an invisible mass-giving field — was announced. But for Prof. Daniela Bortoletto, the memories are as fresh as ever.
“I only remember joy. I remember everyone was so happy. And what surprised me [was] As everyone was interested, it seemed like the whole world was celebrating us,” she said.
Now, as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the monster proton crusher at Europe’s Cern particle laboratory – prepares to begin its third phase of data collection on Tuesday, experts are hoping to unravel more mysteries of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.
Bortoletto, now head of particle physics at Oxford University and part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson, said her main memory of what happened a decade ago was the moment two weeks before the announcement, when the researchers unblinded their analysis of the data and saw clear signs of the boson.
“I’m still thinking [about] At that moment, butterflies get in my stomach,” she said. “It was incredible. It’s really a unique moment in the life of the scientist.”
The media uproar was enormous when the discovery was announced. Newspapers, radio and television all focused on a particle as fleeting as it was important.
Dubbed the “God Particle” and named after physicist Peter Higgs, the Higgs boson is the signature particle of the Higgs field — an invisible energy field that pervades the universe. In short, it is the interaction of elementary particles with this field, interactions thought to have occurred just after the Big Bang when the universe was expanding and cooling, that gives them mass.
The existence of the Higgs boson was predicted by the Standard Model, a key theory that explains three of the four fundamental forces of nature, but it wasn’t until the groundbreaking experiments at the LHC that scientists found the crucial proof.
Thanks to the discovery of the Higgs boson, scientists can now explain a variety of phenomena: from the why Electrons have mass and can therefore create a cloud around a nucleus, creating atoms; why a neutron is more massive than a proton and why the former decays but the latter is stable.
“The Higgs field explains why atoms exist, why we exist. And the fact that we can put it in a context that we think we understand is pretty cool,” Bortoletto said.
But the story is far from over. Since the announcement in 2012, there have been more revelations – including insights into the formation and decay of the Higgs boson and its interactions with heavy particles such as top and bottom quarks. And the work goes on quickly.
Among other things, scientists hope to study interactions between the Higgs boson and muons – fundamental, negatively charged subatomic particles – and to study the coupling of the Higgs boson to itself.
“Understanding, for example, Higgs self-coupling could [help us] understand the shape of the Higgs potential and better understand what happened at the beginning of the universe,” Bortoletto said.
Key to this work is the third run of the LHC, which is scheduled to begin on Tuesday. This time, the atom smasher will operate at 13.6 trillion electron volts (TeV), up from 13 TeV, with Bortoletto revealing that both the Atlas and CMS experiments are expected to double their data sets.
“More data and a little bit more power open up new possibilities,” Bortoletto said. She said scientists could take a closer look at the Higgs boson, and the work could also provide new insights into the mass of the W boson. Another fundamental particle, the W boson, was the focus of a sensation earlier this year when researchers at the Collider Detector at Fermilab in the US revealed their data suggested the particle had a far greater mass than predicted by the Standard Model.
Bortoletto added that there is room for more groundbreaking discoveries.
“There’s a lot of room in the Higgs sector,” she said. “Again, we have a bit more energy, we might discover something new, a new particle — we have a chance every time we go higher in energy, maybe discover new physics.”