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The hunt for the Higgs boson

On the 15th June 2012 hundreds of physicists crammed into a conference room at CERN, to hear a presentation which would bring an end the search for the Higgs boson.

Now it is very exciting. This is the true unblinding. Ok, 1, 2, 3, we are going to look at it…

Peter Higgs in the Collider exhibition
Peter Higgs at the opening of the Science Museum’s Collider exhibition. © Science Museum

Hunting the Higgs

On the 15th June 2012 hundreds of physicists from the CMS experiment crammed into a conference room at CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory. Hundreds more were listening in via video-link from their institutes and universities across the globe.

They had all turned up, or tuned in, to hear a PowerPoint presentation given by Mingming Yang, a young PhD student from China. But this was a PowerPoint presentation of historic significance. It had fallen to Mingming to bring an end to one of the longest and most expensive quests in the history of science – the search for the Higgs boson.

The beginning of the Standard Model in mathematical form, graphic from Collider exhibition © Science Museum / Northover Brown

The beginning of the Standard Model in mathematical form, graphic from Collider exhibition.

Proving the existence of the Higgs is an almost impossible task. Higgs bosons are produced in only a tiny fraction of collisions at the LHC, and decay so rapidly that it’s impossible for a detector to see them directly. Instead, LHC physicists must look for the shrapnel of lighter particles produced when a Higgs boson pops fleetingly in and out of existence.

To make matters worse, there are many other processes that can give the same signature as a Higgs decay and physicists must statistically disentangle real Higgs bosons from the fakers. In the end, the smoking-gun that showed the Higgs was real was a small bump in a graph, sitting on top of a much larger sea of background noise.

From the 'God' to the 'goddamn' particle, the Higgs’ nicknames have generally reflected the fact that it was frustratingly elusive. In the decades following Peter Higgs’ 1964 prediction that such a particle ought to exist, physicists even doubted whether it would show up at all.

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