We talk a lot about big data and how it could change the world, but the truth is that data doesn’t come much bigger — or more world-changing — than this: On Wednesday scientists at CERN, the physics research institute on the French-Swiss border where the web was invented 22 years ago, announced that they were sure they’d found the almost-mythical Higgs boson — the so-called “god particle”.
Well, they announced that they were pretty sure they’d found it, because scientists are never entirely sure of anything.
In a live video stream beamed to hundreds of thousands of physics fans with breath so bated that oxygen masks were being readied off-stage, Cern officials took the stage to reveal they had found evidence that the Higgs boson — an until-now theoretical sub-atomic particle that gives everything in the universe its mass — exists.
The announcement drew plenty of reaction online.
The New York Times welcomed the discovery in grandiloquent terms, saying it “could redefine the physical world”.
Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it…
According to the Standard Model, which has ruled physics for 40 years now, the Higgs boson is the only visible and particular manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles that would otherwise be massless with mass.
The science blogging community was, of course, out in full force. Bad Astronomy did a good job of explaining how the particle was found, while Wired Science was already wondering what the Large Hadron Collider, the huge particle smasher at the center of the discovery, could discover when it comes back online in two years.
The BBC, meanwhile, mentioned the emotions on display:
The results announced at Cern (European Organization for Nuclear Research), home of the LHC in Geneva, were met with loud applause and cheering. Prof Peter Higgs, after whom the particle is named, wiped a tear from his eye as the teams finished their presentations in the Cern auditorium.
My friend Ian Sample, who wrote a great book about the hunt for the Higgs boson called Massive, was there in Switzerland to report on the announcement — and documented what he termed the #higgsteria.
— Ian Sample (@iansample) July 4, 2012
Still, there was plenty of fun to be had too. Many took note of the way the Powerpoint presentation looked.
— Colin Eberhardt (@ColinEberhardt) July 4, 2012
The web, it seemed, was appropriately awed. Even Stephen Hawking, who has famously battled motor neurone disease for most of his life, managed to raise a smile when explaining how the discovery meant he’d just lost a $100 bet.
Particulate photograph used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Steve Jurvetson