Hello there, Higgs boson

Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher have announced the discovery of a brand-new particle—and it looks an awful lot like the long-sought Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle,” without which the universe as we know it wouldn’t exist.

“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” Rolf Heuer, director of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), told a crowd of scientists, to cheers and a standing ovation. The existence of this particle was confirmed in two separate experiments at the Large Hadron Collider—a massive underground particle accelerator that spans the border of France and Switzerland—and there’s less than a one-in-a-million chance that the data is a fluke. Peter Higgs, the Edinburgh-based physicist who theorized the existence of the Higgs boson, was there as the announcement was made, and wiped away a tear. The 83-year-old told the crowd: “It is an incredible thing that has happened in my lifetime.”

Higgs and other theorists first proposed the existence of the Higgs boson more than half a century ago to explain a mystery: Why do most elementary particles have mass? Without mass, as CERN notes, there would be no atoms; no chemistry; no biology—and certainly none of us. But the concept of mass has long been a sticking point in the Standard Model, which describes all known elementary particles, and how they interact.

To help explain it, physicists came up with the Higgs mechanism: an invisible field that stretches across space and gives mass to these particles. The Higgs boson particle is a manifestation of this, but of all the particles predicted by the Standard Model, it was the only one that hadn’t been observed. To search for the Higgs boson, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider—called the world’s biggest science experiment—smashed protons together, recreating conditions that existed just after the Big Bang, when Higgs boson particles were theorized to exist.

This new particle looks startlingly like the Higgs boson—but what if it’s something even more strange and exotic? After all, just a measly four per cent of the entire universe is made up of matter we can see. The remaining 96 per cent is believed to be dark matter and dark energy, which we still know almost nothing about. As scientists learn more about this new subatomic particle—whether it’s a Higgs boson or something previously unimagined—it will open a new door on our understanding of the universe.