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Top Photo: A particle detector at the LHC. Photo credit: ATLAS Experiment © 2016 CERN

As far back as written language will permit, man has looked for the beginning.And every culture has sought to find the answer to that question in the sky. Did we come from nothing? Is there a guiding force “out there” that makes it all happen?

As scientists increased their skills, they learned that what seemed to be solid objects were made of molecules, which were made of atoms, which were made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Then they discovered that the protons and neutrons were made of even smaller particles called “quarks.” But matter does nothing if not acted upon by force. Scientists have identified four forces in the cosmos including gravity, electromagnetic, nuclear strong and nuclear weak. The mathematics that describes all the forces except gravity is called the “standard model” of particle  physics. 

A particle collision that might have produced a Higgs particle in the Large Hadron Collider.
A particle collision that might have produced

a Higgs particle in the Large Hadron Collider.

But the standard model does not easily explain something that seems to be obvious—that particles have mass. In 1962, a British physicist, Peter Higgs (and others), wrote scientific papers about a particle that would interact with all the others, and give them mass in the process. This would be like an on-switch to all matter. Scientists named the particle the Higgs boson and the American physicist Leon Lederman wrote a book calling it “The God Particle.”

Many scientists dislike that name, but it stuck in the minds of laypersons around the globe.

The problem was, scientists hadn’t seen a particle like the Higgs boson. It’s not an easy thing to see! For one thing, the Higgs boson itself has a lot of mass, meaning it takes a lot of energy to create it.And once it’s created, it disappears or “decays” in a tiny fraction of a second, leaving behind lighter particles.

But until the Higgs boson was seen, there would be no way to know if Peter Higgs’ idea was right. So thousands of scientists from hundreds of universities and laboratories around the world (including the University of Arizona) worked together to build a machine that could create enough energy to produce it, with detectors that were sensitive enough to record the particles created when it decays. The machine is called the “Large Hadron Collider” or LHC, and was built near Geneva, Switzerland, at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). By 2012 enough data was collected for the scientists to be sure that they had seen the Higgs boson. So the mathematics that Peter Higgs wrote down 50 years earlier was correct, and now we know for sure why particles have mass!

However, there are still many things that scientists don’t know. There’s even a mystery about what makes up most of the universe! So scientists and the LHC are still working and looking for even more answers.

Did You Know?

Gravity is the only force that cannot be described

using the mathematics that explains electromagnetic,

nuclear strong and nuclear weak forces. You can

prove that gravity exists by dropping a bowling

ball on your foot. It was Albert Einstein

who explained why!


Smiling bobcat

Fun Facts

• Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series often refers to CERN and the LHC. “Perhaps it was the look of someone permanently doing sums in his head, and not just proper sums either, but the sneaky sort with letters in them.”

• In the Star Wars trilogy, Obi Wan Kenobi does not specify what force, but the force.“May the force be with you.”

• Many think that Matt Groening, in one show, had Homer Simpson at the chalkboard writing out the formula that predicted the Higgs boson.

• In Star Trek, characters lost and gained mass as they traveled to and from the ship. “Beam me up, Scotty!”


To learn more about the Higgs boson, contact Professor Erich Varnes, Ph.D. at

University of Arizona Physics College of Science