Everything you see has mass – the shoes on your feet, the car you drive and the food you eat. Mass is made up of matter.
In the 1960s, a British scientist named Peter Higgs thought there must be a hypothetical particle that gives mass to matter.
“It took a while for people to realize the significance of that prediction, but once it became clear that this answered a lot of questions we had about how the universe worked, it became an absolute priority to find the Higgs Field,” explained Notre Dame Assistant Professor and Higgs Field researcher Kevin Lannon.
After decades of design and research and billions of dollars from governments around the world, the European Nuclear Research Lab built a special underground ring on the border of France and Switzerland, dubbed the “atom smasher,” to search for the Higgs Field.
The high tech equipment attempted to re-create the conditions that existed in the early development of the universe. Then just last week in Europe, several of the physicists came together for a scheduled meeting.
“We all started sharing what we were seeing in different pieces of the data and putting it all together and that was the point where we said 'OK, we've got something special,'” Lannon recalled.
Scientists say it matters to you and me because they believe without the Higgs Boson, the universe would not exist.
“Everything has mass. Everything in front of you has mass,” explained Jessop. “If there is no mass, there is no universe. So without the Higgs Field, without Higgs Boson, the universe would not exist.”
Several Notre Dame faculty members, researchers, students and engineers worked with 2,000 scientists from around the world to analyze data collected in Switzerland and help make the equipment work.
“Ever since I started getting into particle physics, this was sort of the Holy Grail – what I was hoping I would get to see in my career,” said Notre Dame graduate student and researcher Jamie Antonelli. “And it happened to come pretty early on so it’s pretty exciting.”
But why should you care?
Lannon likened that explanation to a murder mystery. Their mystery, he said, was trying to show how particles in the universe got mass. They now have a suspect, the Higgs Boson field. But they’ll have to go through a trial where they present evidence and prove that suspect is actually what they were looking for and does what they thought it did.
“I’m actually hoping, like most other good mystery stories, that there are a few good twists and turns because the first suspect you get is never the one you actually end up solving the crime with,” he added.
Not knowing the future importance of a big discovery like this is pretty typical, Jessop explained.
He referenced quantum mechanics – a discovery first made in the 1800s and further developed in the 1900s. Those mechanics are now used in things like cell phones, cameras and televisions.