'God Particle' Discovery Disappoints Some Physicists

Mar 14, 2013
Originally published on March 14, 2013 5:49 pm



From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Scientists in Switzerland have reinforced a huge discovery they announced last summer. They said today that they've almost certainly found the Higgs particle, the long-sought missing link that helps explain the basic nature of our universe. This firms up similar results they unveiled with great fanfare in July.

But NPR's Richard Harris reports, it's actually disappointing news for some scientists.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Nearly 50 years ago, scientists predicted that there is a particle out there that literally gives substance to our universe. It's now called the Higgs Boson, and it makes stuff have mass. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider, which straddles the border of France and Switzerland, won't actually come right out and say they have proof that the Higgs particle exists. But Mark Sher, at the College of William and Mary, says that's not really in question anymore.

MARK SHER: A Higgs Boson has been found, period. I don't think anybody doubts that anymore.

HARRIS: The bad news for Sher and other theorists is the particle so far looks exactly as it was predicted to look. That's a problem because after all this effort, it doesn't tell us anything new about the universe. Sher was desperately hoping for something odd to come out of this multi-billion dollar experiment.

SHER: So there are no anomalies, no surprises. And that's a little disturbing because if there's something a little bit wrong, then we can have new physics to learn.

HARRIS: Sher has been publishing scientific papers about the Higgs particle since 1978. And for the time being, at least, he's stumped.

SHER: It's sort of weird. We've been looking for this for 35 years. And now that we found it, it behaves just like we expect. Now what? It's like the cat that finally catches the mouse and isn't sure what to do with it.

HARRIS: Across the country, at the University of California Santa Barbara, Steve Giddings sings high praises to the experimentalists who have nailed down the Higgs Boson. Discovering the Higgs could lead to a Nobel Prize. But when pressed, Giddings - a theorist, not an experimentalist - also feels let down.

STEVE GIDDINGS: Well, it is a little disappointing that we haven't gotten some more hints about the fundamental structure of nature beyond things that were more expected.

HARRIS: Happily for these scientists, there are plenty of theories hinting that unexpected results could lie just around the corner.

GIDDINGS: We have strong indications that something else should be there beyond the Higgs. And one of the things we've really been scratching our heads about is where is that new physics.

HARRIS: Giddings says we need some new physics. The Higgs Boson is the final discovery needed to complete a theory called the Standard Model, which makes sense of the quarks and leptons that atoms are built out of. But the Standard Model still doesn't explain some pretty basic things about our universe. For example, the universe is full of a mysterious and invisible substance called dark matter, and the Standard Model doesn't tell us what that's made of.

GIDDINGS: The amount of dark matter, the total mass in is much larger it appears than the amount of mass in ordinary matter. So that's a huge puzzle.

HARRIS: It may take a while to find more clues about that and other puzzles. The Large Hadron Collider is now shut down for upgrades. Over the next two years, it will get juiced up to be about twice as powerful as it is now. The new improved machine may probe new realms of the subatomic world. And that cheers up Mark Sher at William and Mary.

SHER: There still will always be hope that in the next round of running, and starting in two years, that they will see little deviations which will then tell us a lot.

HARRIS: If not, well, the high-energy physics community is now contemplating a vastly more powerful machine to spit out Higgs Bosons. That could be up and running in around 2025, giving theorists plenty of thinking time.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.