Higgs and his particle prove elusive

It somehow seemed fitting that the eminent physicist Peter Higgs was a no-show at a meeting of the American Physical Society, proving just as elusive as the long-sought elementary particle that bears his name.

Quite understandably, Higgs, now 80 and one of six winners of this year’s J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics, declined to venture from England to snowy Washington to give a talk on his work. 

Higgs first proposed in 1964 the existence of a subatomic particle, later dubbed the Higgs, that could explain why the known elementary particles have mass. Theorists believe that all particles were massless when the universe was born but acquired mass a fraction of a second later after interacting with a theoretical field known as the Higgs field.

Ever since, physicists have been looking for the particle that generates the Higgs field. Most scientists have pinned their hopes on the Large Hadron Collider, the giant atom smasher in Geneva that is scheduled to resume regular collisions after more than a year’s delay due to faulty electrical connections. That’s the good news. But to avoid the risk of further electrical problems, researchers at CERN, the consortium that operates the collider, recently announced the accelerator would operate at only half its maximum power until 2013. That could seriously delay exploration of some of the highest energy particles the Large Hadron Collider can produce, including the proposed Higgs.

Although studies at Fermilab’s Tevatron have narrowed the range of masses that the Higgs can have — two new Tevatron papers on the Higgs were posted here and here at the Physical Review Letters website on February 12 — the final word is still most likely to come from the Large Hadron Collider. And for that, scientists will have to wait awhile.

If the Higgs particle is found, Peter Higgs and his collaborators will likely garner another award—the Nobel Prize—in addition to the Sakurai.

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