The Higgs boson, the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, had for many decades eluded physicists' increasingly elaborate efforts to detect its presence.
Two giant experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider had found tantalizing hints of the Higgs in late 2011. At that time, physicists hoped that the spring 2012 run would lead to a discovery.
Physicists hid the data from the spring run from even themselves, “blinding” their analyses so as to not introduce bias. In mid-June they took the first look at the new evidence.
The “Higgs-like” particle that emerged has many of the properties that physicists were looking for. It also held some early surprises that could point the way to the future of physics.
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Late on the evening of June 14, 2012, groups of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers working on the Large Hadron Collider began peering into a just opened data cache. This huge machine at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva, had been producing tremendous amounts of data in the months since it awoke from its winter-long slumber. But the more than 6,000 physicists who work on the LHC's two largest experiments were wary of unintentionally adding biases to their analysis. They had agreed to remain completely unaware of the results—performing what are called “blind” analyses—until mid-June, when all would suddenly be revealed in a frenzy of nocturnal activity.
Many of the young scientists worked through that night to untangle the newly freed threads of evidence. Although the LHC is a giant collider feeding multiple experiments, only the two largest ones—ATLAS and CMS—had been tasked with finding the Higgs boson, the long-sought particle that would complete the Standard Model of particle physics, the theoretical description of the subatomic world. Each massive detector records the subatomic debris spewing relentlessly from proton collisions in its midst; a detailed, independent accounting of these remnants can reveal fleeting new phenomena, including perhaps the elusive Higgs boson. Yet the detectors have to sift through the particle tracks and energy deposits while enduring a steady siege of low-energy background particles that threaten to swamp potentially interesting signals. It is like drinking from a fire hose while trying to ferret out a few tiny grains of gold with your teeth.
This article was originally published with the title The Higgs at Last.