National Geographic Daily News
Physicist Peter Higgs in a posed portrait.

British physicist Peter Higgs, for whom the Higgs boson is named.

Photograph by Toni Albir, European Pressphoto Agency

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published March 15, 2013

Physicists announced this week that they are more confident than ever that the "Higgs-like" particle discovered last year is actually the long-sought Higgs boson—the particle crucial for understanding why objects in the universe have mass.

The probability that last year's data identifying the Higgs boson was a statistical fluke—and that researchers hadn't discovered the long-sought particle—"is now becoming astronomically low," said Tim Barklow, an experimental physicist with the ATLAS Experiment who's based at Stanford University's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

On Thursday, scientists from CERN announced at the annual Moriond Conference in Italy that certain key properties of the particle are so far consistent with what is predicted by the so-called Standard Model of particle physics.

For example, the Higgs boson is postulated to have no rotation, or "spin," and in the Standard Model its parity—a measure of how the particle's mirror image behaves—should be positive.

And indeed, the latest data "point to the new particle having the spin-parity of a Higgs boson as in the Standard Model," Dave Charlton, a spokesperson for CERN's ATLAS project, said in a statement.

ATLAS and the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) are the two experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that are searching for signs of the Higgs boson. The latest analyses included data from about 500 trillion proton-proton collisions from ATLAS and CMS collected in 2011 and from 1,500 trillion collisions in 2012—or about two and a half times more data than were available at the time of the particle's discovery announcement last July 4.

If It Looks Like a Higgs...

The new evidence is compelling enough that some scientists have thrown caution to the wind and have stopped referring to the new particle as being merely "Higgs-like" and just calling it the Higgs boson.

"The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent, and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson," CMS spokesperson Joe Incandela said in a statement.

Incandela added, however, that physicists "still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is."

The Higgs could—as the evidence increasingly suggests—be a single particle that has all of the properties predicted by the Standard Model. Or it might be something more unusual, such as a composite made up of multiple particles.

Howard Gordon, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the ATLAS deputy collaboration board chair, called the new data "exciting," but said he would like to see even more precise measurements of the new particle's properties before he is absolutely sure it's the Higgs boson.

CERN physicists are confident to a sigma level of only about three that the spin and parity of the Higgs are zero and positive, respectively, as theory predicts.

Scientists use sigma levels to express their degree of confidence in a result—higher values are better.

Researchers stunned the world last July when they said that the sigma level for the discovery of a new Higgs-like particle was five, meaning that there was only a one-in-a-million chance that the Higgs-like signal they observed was a statistical fluke.

The Higgs' spin and parity are "not as definitive as the fact that we have a new particle," Gordon said.

Also, the decay, or "coupling," paths of the new particle still need to be worked out in more detail. The Standard Model predicts that the Higgs boson will decay into more conventional subatomic particles such as b quarks and leptons.

The latest results indicate that the Higgs particle is sticking to the Standard Model's script, but the confidence levels for the two decay modes also have room for improvement. Its "two [decay] modes still have very large errors associated with them. We don't have those nailed down yet," Gordon said.

Predictable So Far

Although a full picture of the Higgs boson has yet to emerge, some physicists have expressed disappointment that the new particle is so far behaving exactly as theory predicts.

"This is looking very much like a garden-variety [Standard Model] Higgs, which is discouraging for hopes of hints about how to get beyond the Standard Model," Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University in New York, wrote on his blog Not Even Wrong.

And cosmologist Sean Carroll of Caltech tweeted that the new data on the Higgs boson is "looking pretty vanilla."

But SLAC's Barklow said it's too soon to dismiss the Higgs as "boring."

"We are a long way from making that determination," Barklow told National Geographic News.

Brookhaven's Gordon said he is aware that some of his colleagues were hopeful the Higgs would turn out to be exotic, but he pointed out that there are still unanswered questions about the particle that theory can't explain.

For instance, its mass of around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) is lighter than it should be.

"The question of why the Higgs is at 125 GeV is still something that we don't understand," Gordon said, "and there are people trying to figure out why that is."

Work Continues

The Large Hadron Collider is currently in the midst of a scheduled two-year shutdown for maintenance and upgrades that will allow it to smash protons at even higher energies when it comes back online in 2015, so no new Higgs particles are currently being produced.

That doesn't mean Higgs research has ground to a halt. Many physicists are working on ways to improve the analysis of the Higgs data that have already been collected.

"I think there'll be incremental increases [in our understanding of the Higgs] even while the machine is being refurbished and upgraded," Barklow said.

15 comments
Gabe Long
Gabe Long

This is "mass"ive. heehahaha

Carl Snyder
Carl Snyder

I think that the Higgs is a particle that acts like a bridge to a collection of energy that provides the atom with all the power it needs. The current theory that Albert Einstein developed "Quanta Packets" is false, because how do atoms that aren't exposed to Photons "Quanta Packets" receive the energy needed to prevent the electrons from crashing into the surface. Also, the sub atomic particles set-up provides the parent particle with the charge it needs. However, where do the sub atomic particles receive the actual energy. Basically if there is a sub atomic particle that provides mass, there can easily be a particle that provides energy to the system, Higgs Mass and Higgs Energy. A bridge existing between our universe and another plane is easier to understand then looking for the smaller and smaller levels of existence "string theory".

Reid Barnes
Reid Barnes

Stephen Hawking said he lost 100 dollars betting the Higgs wouldn't be found. If he paid, he may have lost the money, but he hasn't lost the bet yet. We have to wait until 2015. According to CERN Research Director, Sergio Bertolucci, "Only when we know that it has spin-zero will we be able to call it a Higgs."  And more proof is needed.  Also, scientist, Raymond "Volkas says that physicists and Higgs-watchers may have to prepare themselves for the possibility that the LHC data never establishes … the Higgs predicted by the standard model," New Scientist reports. 2015 will be 48 years from when a paper was published, and three physicists received the Nobel prize for the first "Standard Model" with the "Higgs mechanism."  But they had all given up and gone to other pursuits after the 1967 paper that eventually sparked the award. Why? Something has been holding back the hunt for the Higgs.  https://www.facebook.com/notes/reid-barnes/has-something-been-holding-back-the-search-for-the-higgs-boson/430347917017788

Douglas Maimes
Douglas Maimes

So many scientists - from so many countries - and so many backgrounds - have worked so diligently - for so long - to reveal the true nature of matter.


I admire this pursuit and I respect the persistence they've shown in their efforts to achieve that goal.  I just don't feel all warm and fuzzy inside about this latest announcement.


Think about it:


Six thousand or so top scientists are given a 10 billion dollar particle accelerator to play with - for as long as it takes - to find THE particle (the Higgs boson) that would finally validate the Standard Theory once and for all.


After colliding protons head on - at close to the speed of light - over 1,000,000,000,000 times, it doesn't seem that remarkable to me that they have finally found a "chunk" of proton that has the exact physical characteristics they were looking for.


I find this to be far more remarkable:


One man - working alone and using no tools aside from his mind and a pencil - has (for the last 60 years) been quietly developing a very convincing theory describing the structure and behavior of atoms and subatomic particles. Although this theory may never be able to be proven experimentally, it is worthy of attention because it seems to resolve many of the mysteries that have baffled physicists for centuries.


If it interests you, there is a website describing some elements of Jurjen van der Wal's theory, which can be easily be found by searching "pyramid physics".



Perhaps scientists have been concentrating so hard on efforts to validate the Standard Theory that they have been neglecting to consider other possible theories.


Andres Minas
Andres Minas

""...its (the higgs) mass of around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) is lighter than it should be.

The question of why the Higgs is at 125 GeV is still something that we don't understand..."

There they go again. Why can't people just take Sanim Azrem Serdna's pronouncement in the late 20th century, "Nature is, and will ever be."   Let's keep on with life and fill it with wonder and excitement if we so wish.  Leave the exotic equations, i.e., string, wormholes, etc. to science fiction.

Max K.
Max K.

To Bean Cube - Good Question! The formulae which were developed in the prediction of this particle are sound, those being the mass-generation-mechanism formulae - which are the postulates alluding to the existence of a mass-generating particle - and they are the mathematical representations for the predicted properties of this particle. Previously, there were gravity-bound predictions of such particles, but those were not proven. The previously-theoretical higgs particle was a gravity-free theory.  

Without getting into the details in this post, to answer your question, I would refer you to either speak with a Physicist (if you are one already, then speak with a colleague! :)  ), or do a google-search for the specific formulae which show the predicted higgs particle. I will use a brief example here: in archaeology, when a particular size fossil or bone is discovered, an archaeologist is able to make relatively decent predictions on the size of the pre-historic animal that this fossil used to belong to. We have a similar situation here - we have particles in the universe which ultimately alluded to the qualities of what would be found in the 'higgs' particle. From reports thus far, the predictions of those qualities seem to confirm that we've discovered the correct particle, the higgs boson. Similar to the analogy - where a dinosaur bone was discovered,  and 20 miles away a full dinosaur skeleton was discovered, missing the bone we had found earlier. How can we be sure that the bone we found earlier belonged to this dinosaur? Well, visually speaking, we can match up the bone, and scientifically speaking, we can run carbon-dating in soil, bone, dna, and other matching scientific tests to confirm. Similarly, that's the process we have been going through for the past year+, since the initial announcement of the speculation of having found this particle. As for your specific question as to how to prove that this particle actually aids in the creation of mass - i'm sure we will be able to conduct further tests to prove this from an observational perspective, but from a mathematical perspective - this has already been proven, and all you need do is run through the formulae to 'check' the answer yourself. I hope this answers your question. :)

Bean Cube
Bean Cube

How can we proof we don't have mass without this particles? I mean the particle is already so difficult to proof existing. How do these particles in the universe make photon to travel in an absolute speed that we call speed of light?

Greg Simpson
Greg Simpson

"The Higgs could—as the evidence increasingly suggests—be a single particle that has all of the properties predicted by the Standard Model. Or it might be something more unusual, such as a composite made up of multiple particles." Brilliant deduction Watson.....maybe it's just like the universe, without limit in dimension or time. We will never find the smallest particle just like we will never discover the beginning of everything...and I am not referring to our universe, but to "everything".

Robin Seifried
Robin Seifried

I think Higgs Boson is carbon in its pure gas form. 

Thomas Olaes
Thomas Olaes

@Andres Minas The quest to answer the questions we put to nature is the wonder and excitement to which you refer.

Carl Snyder
Carl Snyder

@Robin Seifried  I think that the Higgs is a particle that acts like a bridge to a collection of energy that provides the atom with all the power it needs. This is because the current theory that Albert Einstein developed "Quanta Packets" is false, how do atoms that aren't exposed to Photons "Quanta Packets" receive the energy needed to prevent the electrons from crashing into the surface. Also, the sub atomic particles set-up provides the parent particle with the charge it needs. However, where do the sub atomic particles receive the actual energy required for the parent particle. Basically if there is a sub atomic particle that provides mass, there can easily be a particle that provides energy to the system, Higgs Mass and Higgs Energy.

John Moody
John Moody

 Except carbon is an atom. Atoms are made of smaller particles. Without a nucleus and electrons it isn't carbon.

Andres Minas
Andres Minas

@Thomas Olaes @Andres Minas 

Lest I might haven't explained well.  I don't see how it is supposed to be otherwise (at 125 Gev).  But then some people are out in la-la-land whose ideas have to be rejected on account of non-testability.

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