Discovery of Higgs boson called 'breakthrough of the Year'
The observation of an elusive sub-atomic particle, known as the Higgs boson, has been hailed as the most important scientific discovery of 2012 by the journal Science.
This particle, which was first hypothesized more than 40 years ago, holds the key to explaining how other elementary particles (those that aren't made up of smaller particles), such as electrons and quarks, get their mass.
In addition to recognizing the detection of this particle as the 2012 Breakthrough of the Year, Science and its international nonprofit publisher, AAAS, have identified nine other groundbreaking scientific achievements from the past year and compiled them into a top 10 list that will appear in the latest issue.
Researchers unveiled evidence of the Higgs boson on 4 July, fitting into place the last missing piece of a puzzle that physicists call the standard model of particle physics. This theory explains how particles interact via electromagnetic forces, weak nuclear forces and strong nuclear forces in order to make up matter in the universe. However, until this year, researchers could not explain how the elementary particles involved got their mass.
"Simply assigning masses to the particles makes the theory go haywire mathematically. So, mass must somehow emerge from interactions of the otherwise mass-less particles themselves. That's where the Higgs comes in," explained Science news correspondent Adrian Cho, who wrote about the discovery for the journal's Breakthrough of the Year feature.
As Cho explains, physicists assume that space is filled by a "Higgs field," which is similar to an electric field. Particles interact with this Higgs field to obtain energy and-thanks to Einstein's famous mass-energy equivalence-mass as well.
"Just as an electric field consists of particles called photons, the Higgs field consists of Higgs bosons woven into the vacuum. Physicists have now blasted them out of the vacuum and into brief existence," he explained.
But, a view to the Higgs boson did not come easy-or cheap. Thousands of researchers working with a 5.5-billion-dollar atom-smasher at a particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, called CERN, used two gargantuan particle detectors, known as ATLAS and CMS, to spot the long-sought boson.
It is unclear where this discovery will lead the field of particle physics in the future but its impact on the physics community this year has been undeniable, which is why Science calls the detection of the Higgs boson the 2012 Breakthrough of the Year.
The special 21 December issue of the journal includes three articles written by researchers at CERN, which help to explain how this breakthrough was achieved.