3Qs: Searching for the “Holy Grail” of physics

Researchers at CERN, the Euro­pean Center for Nuclear Research, reported ear­lier this week they are get­ting closer to dis­cov­ering the Higgs boson, a sub­atomic par­ticle that sci­en­tists believe will explain why every­thing in the uni­verse has mass. The Higgs boson is con­sid­ered to be the “Holy Grail” of par­ticle physics, and finding it would be one of the greatest sci­en­tific advance­ments in decades.

The research team at CERN includes North­eastern Uni­ver­sity grad­uate stu­dent David Nash, under­grad­uate co-​​op stu­dent Edward Vaisman and post-​​doctoral researcher Daniele Tro­cino. North­eastern physics pro­fes­sors George Alverson, Emanuela Bar­beris and Darien Wood are also involved in the project, along with other grad­uate stu­dents and post-​​doctoral asso­ciates. We asked Bar­beris, asso­ciate pro­fessor of physics, to explain the Higgs boson and what its dis­covery would mean to the world’s sci­en­tific community. 

What is the Higgs boson, and why is it significant?

Imagine a universe without mass. Without a Higgs boson, the theory of the smallest building blocks of matter would only describe them as massless. We know that this is not possible, as objects around us do have mass, so there has to be a mechanism, such as the interaction with the Higgs boson, from which these fundamental constituents acquire their mass.

If the Higgs boson is discovered, what impact will it have on the field of physics?

Uncovering the mechanism for the generation of mass is one of the great open questions in physics. Experiments have been looking for a Higgs particle for the past 50 years. Discovering a Higgs particle and measuring its properties will further our understanding of how the universe developed just after the Big Bang and set the course for future experiments and theoretical development.

Is the Higgs boson the only explanation for why things have mass? What if researchers are not able to find it?

No, the Higgs boson is the simplest mechanism, but there are other theoretical models that attempt to explain mass without it. With more data, we should be able to either find it or to start seeing deviations in some very high-energy processes, indicative of the presence of other underlying mechanisms.

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