On 4 July 2012 it was announced at CERN, the particle physics facility in Geneva, that there is very strong experimental evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson – the missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics.
Physicists claim that everything so far observed in the Universe is made from twelve basic fundamental particles, governed by four fundamental forces. Our best understanding of how these twelve particles, and three of the forces are related to each other, is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particles and forces.
However, until this very new announcement, one of the particles, the so-called Higgs boson, had not been observed and has stood out as the challenging final piece of the jigsaw.
The particle was predicted to be observed from collisions between two beams of protons travelling nearly at the speed of light and so a very special experiment was needed for its detection. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was set up for this purpose. It is contained in a tunnel the size of the Circle Line running across the border between France and Switzerland.
The total cost was about £6 billion and 20 different countries have contributed financially. It is the classic example of a science project that can only be done by many countries collaborating across borders. Indeed CERN itself was set up in 1954 partly to re-engage the countries of Europe in the scientific collaborations that had been destroyed by the Second World War.
The UK has played a central role in the experimental search for the Higgs Boson. 15 University groups were involved in constructing the highly sensitive particle detectors (I remember seeing some of these being designed in Oxford some ten years ago). Over 200 UK nationals are employed by CERN, including Dr Lyn Evans, the LHC project manager, and over 500 UK physicists and engineers regularly work there.
The UK pays 15% of the CERN budget (£95m a year). UK industry has been involved in the construction of the LHC – including Taylor Woodrow in the tunnel design, Tesla with the high-powered magnets and Caparo Accles and Pollock for beam screens.
Will there be a Nobel Prize coming out of this research? The particle has the name of Peter Higgs, a British theoretical physicist now working in Edinburgh, but the original theoretical work was published in three papers in Physical Review Letters in 1964 by him and five other authors. As the Nobel Prize for Physics can only be won by three people in any one year this may represent an interesting challenge for the Nobel Committee.
Is the Higgs Boson the end of the story? The answer is no. The Standard Model does not include gravitational forces and there are many fundamental scientific mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy still unexplained.
Only more major international science projects like the LHC will enable us to provide even deeper understanding of the building blocks of the Universe.