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By Ryan Johnson and Erik Burgess, Forum staff writers, Published July 05 2012

NDSU professor: ‘God particle’ missing puzzle piece

FARGO – For years, physicists were working to build a “very complicated puzzle” but couldn’t quite find the one missing piece in the box, North Dakota State University assistant professor of physics Andrew Croll said.

“It took a lot of time to find, and this is finally it,” he said about Wednesday’s announcement that researchers at the world’s biggest atom collider had found evidence of the so-called “God particle” that explains why everything has weight.

“They finally found that last piece, and they’ve sort of completed this picture of the world,” Croll said.

Despite the layman’s name that Croll said is good for making headlines, the new evidence of what researchers call the Higgs boson subatomic particle backs up the standard model theory of physics that has been around since the 1970s.

He said like other subatomic particles, including neutrons and protons, the Higgs boson has always been there – it just couldn’t be seen until scientists developed the right equipment.

The discovery of the particle is important because scientists have been operating under the assumption of its existence for years, but now they can prove it, said Ju Kim, chairman of the physics and astrophysics department at the University of North Dakota.

“Finding the Higgs particle is a confirmation that the theory that people have been developing to understand the fundamental forces governing the universe is working,” Kim said.

The particle was discovered thanks to the $10 billion European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, atom smasher on the Swiss-French border. Its 17-mile underground tunnel used “tremendous” energy to find the missing piece, Croll said.

“This is something that people just knew had to be there, but nobody had ever seen it until now,” he said.

He said it was similar to finding bacteria when the right microscopes were invented.

The new evidence of the Higgs boson gives physicists “a great deal of confidence” in current physics theory, which is always under scrutiny as researchers look for weak spots, Croll said.

Kim agreed. He said particle physicists often work in the abstract, and to confirm a discovery in the “real world” is crucial.

“We like to confirm that what we do is something real,” Kim said. “So, always, confirmation is something important.”

It also backs up the idea of why things have different weights in the universe, Croll said.

He said it’s hard to know what the lasting impact of the Higgs boson discovery wil be.

“I think it would be quite a long time before anybody could figure out how to manipulate particles like this at will or something like that,” he said.

There was a lot of interest in the early 1900s about positrons, a newly discovered subatomic particle at the time that is now at the center of positron emission tomography scans widely used in medicine, Croll said.

“Nobody would have expected that back then,” he said.

Still, he said Wednesday’s announcement marks an important development in physics.

“In some ways, it’s special because it’s the one that gives mass to all the other particles. It kind of interacts with all the other guys in the particle zoo.”

Kim said he is not a particle physicist, so the discovery hasn’t affected his work directly yet, but it was still big news.

“Any new developments in the scientific community is news to us as well,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518.