ASU's Richard Lebed Talks Particle Physics, CERN, and the Discovery of What Might be the Higgs boson Particle

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN
The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN

On Wednesday, scientists at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland finally found what they think could be the missing piece to puzzle that is the Standard Model of particle physics.

This is a tiny piece of the universe scientists have been searching for for decades. If the particle does turn out to be the Higgs boson -- the missing cornerstone of particle physics -- it will mean a plethora of new areas of study. And some of this stuff sounds like it came straight out of a sci-fi book.

We talked with ASU Professor of Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics Richard Lebed, who broke down what the potential discovery of the "God particle" is all about.

Since 2008, scientists at CERN have been using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest particle accelerator, to re-create the conditions just after the Big Bang.

They do so by smashing together atoms and probing what falls out. Compare it to crashing two cars together and picking through the wreckage to indentify all the pieces. Using this process, they have been able to fit together the pieces of the Standard Model of particle physics, a framework that explains the interactions of particles in a simple and easy fashion (for scientists at least).

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But, as Professor Lebed explains, without the Higgs boson particle the model doesn't really work.

The Higgs boson gives all other particles their mass. Not literally in the sense that without the particle there would be no mass, but due to the Higgs field, a force field the particle is thought to create. It is because of this field that other particles are endowed with resistance to moving (inertia) and thereby, mass. Essentially, without the existence of the Higgs boson, scientists would be unable to account for the mass of other particles. So, returning to our car analogy, while Lebed says that scientists have theorized for years that the cars had "steering wheels," they've only just now picked out what looks to be a steering wheel from the atomic rubble.

Although the Higgs boson theory is only one of a number of theories about how the model could work, scientists are confident "to the level of 5 sigma" (in Lebed's words, "statistically very confident") that this is in fact an entirely new particle -- and probably the one they've been looking for since 1964.

Lebed says the longterm effect of this recent discovery is still unknown, and could remain that way for years: "You can never know at the time of a discovery what kind of effect its going to have down the road."

But he did have few pretty awesome ideas about where research could move now that scientists have the Standard Model "under their belts."

In the future, physicists will be able to "crank up the energy at the LHC" and explore particles that could be related to other spacetime dimensions, says Lebed.

With more research he believes we may be able to see tiny particles that run around on loops outside larger particles. Other possible implications include the exploration of supersymmetry (the theory that every particle we've discovered to date also has a "super particle" twin) and dark matter (the existence of matter that does not reflect or emit electromagnetic light).

So, no, you probably won't be able to go back to time anytime soon, but the discovery is nonetheless "milestone in our understanding of nature," according to CERN Director General Rolf Heuer.

"It's not going to change your everyday," Lebed admits, "But it could bring some really exciting and exotic things."

Check out this video explanation for more on the Higgs boson:

The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

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