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Science & Research

Five Smart Things to Say About the Higgs Boson

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of photons.

Courtesy Thomas McCauley/Lucas Taylor/CERN

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of photons.

Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, announced yesterday that they’re even more certain than they were last summer (like, more than 99.999999999 percent sure) that they’ve seen a Higgs boson particle—even if it’s not the Higgs boson particle.

At this point you might be wondering: What’s the difference, and why does it even matter? Let’s be honest. This is some seriously complicated science—a discovery that could, you know, potentially change our entire understanding of how the universe works. If you end up schmoozing with particle physicists this weekend, just stick to this script and you’ll be fine:

“Yes, but does it fit in the Standard Model?”

The Higgs boson is said to be the last elusive piece of the puzzle in the Standard Model of physics, confirming our understanding of how particles acquire mass and experiences forces. The only question now is whether the Higgs boson the CERN scientists have seen is the one that fits in the Standard Model, and not a different model, which seems likely. “I’m confident that it’s a Higgs particle. I don’t need to call it Higgs-like anymore,” says Joe Incandela, spokesman for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) team at CERN.

“You know, Higgs quit Greenpeace over GMOs.”

British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs was one of the first scientists to theorize the existence of this new particle, the Higgs boson, back in 1964. There were some other physicists that had talked about it, too, but Higgs got his name on it.

“It’s still chilly in Geneva.”

CERN is home to the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, a giant underground ring that’s almost 17 miles in circumference. Inside the LHC they can smash protons into one another at nearly the speed of light, and the collisions release a very small amount of energy that lasts for a fraction of a second and sometimes contains a Higgs boson. Now you understand why it’s so difficult to be sure.

“Goddamn particle, actually.”

The Higgs boson is often called the “God particle,” but a) Higgs has said that was never the intention of Leon Lederman, whose book popularized the phrase, and b) there is nothing really godlike about it. Yes, it’s important, but more in a this-is-a-fundamental-question-of-physics and not in a this-is-the-meaning-of-it-all way. If your goal is to sound halfway intelligent on this stuff, stick with Higgs boson.

“Zero spin!”

Without it, we’re all just massless, meaningless subatomic specks of dust floating in space (kidding). If it turns out the Higgs boson doesn’t exist, or if there are more than one kind of Higgs bosons, scientists would really have to reevaluate basing assumptions on the the Standard Model of physics—the one we’ve been working off of for the past 40 or so years.

If it is a Higgs boson (which it looks to be!) it would be the first elementary particle with zero spin, which sounds cool more than anything. More important, though, the existence of the Higgs boson would support the existence of the Higgs field, our rationale for why some particles have mass and others do not. This type of fundamental knowledge is crucial when explaining the existence of stars, planets, … humans.

But it’s still not God.

McCann is a contributing graphics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @atmccann.

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