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Physicists In Switzerland Make Momentous Discovery


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Scientists in Switzerland today say they have made a momentous discovery. They've identified a new sub-atomic particle that helps explain how our universe is put together. It appears to be the long-sought Higgs boson, also called the god particle. The announcement stirred round after round of applause among the gathered scientists, who've been waiting for this moment for decades. Many questions remain about the exact nature of the particle, but this was a morning to celebrate. NPR's Richard Harris was up all night watching all the excitement. And he's sitting here with us in the studio right now.

Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee. At least I was up early. I did get a little....

MONTAGNE: You got a little shut eye. OK. Well, that's all right.

First of all, what exactly is this particle that they've been searching for, and you know, why does it matter?

HARRIS: Well, for decades physicists have been smashing atoms together to understand all the fields and particles that make up our universe. And they've actually come up with a very complete theory called the standard model. It does a really good job of explaining many features of our universe - the nature of light, what atoms are made of and how they hold together and how they decay and so on.

But there has been one missing piece. And this piece predicts the existence of a particle, known as the Higgs particle. And finding it would mean that there's an invisible field that permeates the universe and gives mass to everything in it, you know, stars and of course the atoms inside our bodies. So this is us. This is really fundamental.

MONTAGNE: And they have now actually found the Higgs particle.

HARRIS: They have clearly found some new fundamental particle. And it looks a lot like what they expected. But they can't say that with total certainty, so they're leaving themselves just a little bit of wiggle room. They're calling this a Higgs-like particle, but they're not saying it's absolutely the Higgs particle. One scientist said it's like trying to figure out if the person you see in the distance is your best friend or your best friend's twin. So it looks quite good, but, you know, they're being cautious.

MONTAGNE: And describe for us exactly how they did find it.

HARRIS: Well, they used a particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, which is a $10 billion piece of equipment that straddles the Swiss-French border. And it smashes together protons at incredible energies.

And the hope is by doing this you create Higgs bosons in the process. But they knew that the particles that they would create, if they were creating them, would only last a tiny fraction of a second and then they'd decay into a shower of other particles.

So what they've been really doing is sifting through all of those other little particles to infer where they came from and see if they could sort of reconstruct an explosion that had been blowing up Higgs boson essentially.

And there're actually two experiments running simultaneous to analyze those showers of particles. And at the scientific conference in Switzerland today, both of those experiments announced that they'd found this fundamental new particle.

MONTAGNE: Now, is there a way to describe the particle, I mean what it looks like?

HARRIS: Well, you can't - who knows what it looks like. But what I can say, that it's far heavier than most sub-atomic particles. It's something like 125 times heavier than the proton and the neutron, which are the standard building blocks of an atom's nucleus. So - and as I mentioned, it's extremely fragile. It's highly unstable. It lasts less than a billionth of a second. And obviously they're really hard to make.

MONTAGNE: OK. Yeah. Clearly. So there was a lot of anticipation leading up to this announcement. I mean we're(ph) talking for scientists what they have named the god particle. So what - tell us more about their reaction.

HARRIS: Well, why don't we take a listen for a second.


HARRIS: There was applause like this in waves and it went on for several minutes. And I also saw a handkerchief or two come out and sweep across the cheeks of some of the people who have been hunting for this thing for decades. So it was a very emotional moment, a great sense of accomplishment, really hard to do. And they were, you know, convinced that they had something really important in hand.

But as always, scientists say when they make a discovery there are new questions to answer. And so they're really going to try to figure out exactly what this particle is, if it really is the Higgs particle or not. It might take them another three or four years, actually, to get that final answer. But they are - they've got a new particle and they're really happy.

MONTAGNE: Well, you sound pretty happy too, Richard, for being up all night.

HARRIS: It's wonderful.

MONTAGNE: Oh, great. Well, good. Science correspondent Richard Harris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.