By Liam Casey, Toronto Star, July 3, 2012
Thousands of physics aficionados have descended upon Geneva for news of a historic discovery. Students have camped out overnight, hoping for a seat in the auditorium. And an 83-year-old scientist shuffled through the halls, mobbed by his protégés, on the eve of an announcement expected to prove his 48-year-old theory.
On Wednesday, scientists are expected to announce the existence of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, after years of research at the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN.
The hunt for the subatomic particle has taken nearly 50 years. Scientists have glimpsed a footprint here, a shadow there. But no sightings strong enough for scientific proof.
Bob Orr, a University of Toronto physics professor, has been searching for the elusive particle for more than 30 years. In 1980, he was the only researcher at the university looking for it, but now a group of 30 scientists have played an important part in the hunt for the Higgs boson.
“I could say I’ve wasted half my life looking for this thing,” Orr said, laughing.
No scientist would confirm the nature of Wednesday’s announcement, but CERN inadvertently leaked a video of a spokesperson talking about concrete evidence showing the existence of the Higgs boson.
Preliminary results indicated there was a 1 in 500 chance their experiments were a fluke. Then it was 1 in 1 million. But that still wasn’t enough to call it a “discovery.” The results Wednesday are expected to reach that threshold, with about a 1 in 2.5 million chance their results are a fluke.
At one point, the atom was considered the basic building block of life. Then further research uncovered subatomic particles such as protons, neutrons and electrons. And still more particles were discovered. But what gave those particles their mass?
In 1964, Peter Higgs suggested a particle, aptly named the Higgs boson, interacted with those particles and gave them mass as they passed through an energy field — in effect, creating mass from nothing. Proving the Higgs boson’s existence could solve the mystery of how the universe was formed.
So scientists did what any curious child might do: smash things together and analyze the mess. In the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometre circular tunnel underneath Geneva, scientists launch beams of protons at each other to create trillions of particle collisions — reproductions of the Big Bang.
The Higgs boson lurks in the aftermath of these collisions, but it’s an extremely rare event.
“It’s like looking for a needle in fields and fields of haystacks,” said Richard Teuscher, another U of T physicist working on the project.
The University of Toronto helped build the ATLAS sensor that detects subatomic particles after the collision. Another team has worked simultaneously on a different sensor, called the CMS. Both teams will announce their results Wednesday.
Then there was the gargantuan task of analyzing the data. There are 40 million collisions per second at the collider, which runs all day, every day. Over the course of a year, scientists will detect about three dozen events that could reveal the Higgs boson.
But they must sift through each collision. For that they need computing power. So they used SciNet, U of T’s supercomputer, which is among the best in the world.
“SciNet is absolutely central to make anything out of what happens,” Teuscher said.
Their colleague, Pierre Savard, has been analyzing the data for the past year. The latest round of analysis began just a few weeks ago, so he and his team have been working nearly around the clock to confirm their data ahead of the announcement.
“I’m exhausted, but excited,” Savard said from Geneva. “I can’t say much about it, but it will be a big day.”
It’s unclear what the punishment is for inadvertently revealing the results.
“Most likely you’d just have to endure glares and acerbic cracks in the CERN cafeteria for the next couple of years,” Orr said. “Which would be bad enough.”
There are nearly 10,000 highly educated people working on the project, which rivals only the space program in its scope. It’s an army that has worked on proving that mass can come from nothing.
Something the 83-year-old Higgs postulated nearly 50 years ago.