Did Fermilab just unlock one of the secrets of the universe?



It's possible that scientists at Fermilab have discovered not only one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe but the last theorized particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. Science journalists aren't really allowed to tell you this, of course, because it's also possible that they didn't. But blogs have opened up a whole new world of preliminary speculation, and I'm happy to share this with you.

First, a little background. The Standard Model, developed in the early 1970s, is a theory that explains "three of the four known fundamental interactions between the elementary particles which make up all matter." The fourth is gravity, so the Standard Model is definitely not a Theory of Everything, but it does tie together much of what we know about the universe.

According to the Standard Model, the "pointlike" fundamental particles don't have mass but behave as if they do. A fundamental particle called the Higgs boson is supposed to explain that. And it's the only one out of 17 fundamental particles that hasn't been proven to exist.

Unfortunately, the theoretical Higgs boson is really, really small--too small for existing particle colliders to find, which is one of the many reasons (not the only reason, as this Slate article implies) that the Large Hadron Collider is being constructed in Switzerland. For further information on the LHC, the search for the Higgs boson, and some awesome pictures, I recommend these recent articles from the New Yorker and the New York Times.

But rumors have been spreading that Fermilab's Tevatron, in Batavia, may have found proof (emphasis on the may) that the Higgs boson exists. As the piece in Slate points out, it began with an anonymous comment on the blog of an Italian physicist. The blogosphere amplified the rumor, and it made the press.

Fortunately, the blogs that have been kicking this rumor around are mostly those of experts, so the speculation has been well-reasoned and careful, unlike the Slate article, which suggests that if this rumor pans out the LHC will basically be an $8 billion bit of overkill. This post points out how silly a suggestion that is.

The latest update from the Cosmic Variance blog suggests that the latest findings are probably a false positive but that there's still reason to be intrigued. 

(h/t Miles) 

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