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On the Origins of Mass

Scientists working at the Large Electron Positron Collider (LEP) at the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva may have detected the elusive Higgs boson. The Higgs is a big prize for particle physicists since without it, or some more convoluted explanation, the Universe as we know it wouldn't exist.

Postulated more than 30 years ago, the Higgs gives particles such as quarks and electrons their mass. Particles swim through a sea of hidden Higgs bosons, which drag on them and produce inertia, the essence of mass.

Physicists have been searching for the Higgs for more than a decade. Although Higgs particles are extremely massive, they are normally hard to spot. Higgs particles exploit the inherent uncertainty in quantum mechanics to pop in and out of existence for only the briefest of instants, too short a time to be observed.

To detect a Higgs, physicists collide extremely fast-moving particles together. The energy from the collision is converted into matter, and if the energy is high enough a Higgs boson may appear. On doing so, it decays into a telltale combination of other particles.

Such decays could account for several unusual events observed recently at LEP, researchers said this week at a meeting at CERN. But they admit that their evidence is not yet conclusive. "It's unfortunately not enough to say we have made a discovery," says Dr. Wolf-Dieter Schlatter. It is possible that the events are chance combinations of particles, or indistinguishable particles such as Z bosons decaying in just the right way to mimic a Higgs.

The 27km LEP, housed in a ring-shaped tunnel straddling the Swiss-French border, has already painted detailed portraits of the W and Z bosons. But it is due to be dismantled to make way for a new machine in the same tunnel, the Large Hadron Collider, scheduled to begin hunting for the Higgs particle in 2005.

The full article appears in the September 11 issue of
New Scientist.


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