The largest, most complex science experiment in the history of humanity has yielded a new subatomic particle that could plug a big hole in the fundamental theory of matter. Probably.
Scientists with the Large Hadron Collider announced on Wednesday that a blip in the data is indeed a new particle, one consistent with the much sought after Higgs boson.
University of Victoria physicist Michel Lefebvre watched the live-streamed press conference at midnight local time, and the news was even better than expected.
Lefebvre is one of several thousand scientists who collaborated on creating the building-sized Atlas detector, one of the two experiments at the LHC seeking signs of the Higgs by smashing protons together at near light speeds.
The competing experiment, called CMS, independently came up with the same outcome – a new particle with a mass of about 125 gigaelectron-volts.
“I didn’t know the other experiment had the same results. I found out (Wednesday) night,” Lefebvre said. “This is a historical event. This is a very exciting time. It’s about as important as the discovery of antimatter.
“The new particle is a breach in the wall that separates the unknown. This is an exciting time for fundamental research.”
The theoretical Higgs boson is the physical manifestation of a field that permeates the universe and gives particles their mass. Its existence will confirm the Standard Model of matter and how we understand the structure of the universe.
Lefebvre cautioned that a lot of work still needs to be done to study the new particle to confirm what they found is actually the Higgs.
“I’m willing to bet it’s not a Standard Model Higgs. I’m willing to bet a beer,” Lefebvre laughed. “I think it will be more complicated than that. It may have nothing to do with the Higgs. It’s consistent with the Higgs, but we’ve got to dot our i’s.”
Confirming the existence of a new particle itself was a monumental task involving decades of work to design the detectors and computing systems, and to get the $10-billion, 27-kilometre collider built.
Scientists have been crunching data from the LHC for two years – analyzing the endless spray of particles that emerge from proton-proton collisions.
Lefebvre said the chance that the new particle is a random blip of noise is less than one in a million. He likened it to the chances of seeing 20 heads in a row on a coin flip.
“You can never be sure 100 per cent, but there is less than one chance in a million,” he said. “That is the level of certitude for a new particle. Particle physicists are a pretty careful lot.”
Over the past 20 years, 25 UVic physicists and engineers have designed and built a number of critical components for the Atlas detector and for computational analysis, funded through the Atlas-Canada program.
“UVic played a big role and has been very supportive, and it’s wonderful Canada is a part of this,” Lefebvre said. “The future is very bright for physics.”