Geneva: Scientists at the world's biggest atom smasher hailed the discovery of "the missing cornerstone of physics" on Wednesday, cheering the apparent end of a decades-long quest for a new subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, or "God particle," which could help explain why all matter have mass and crack open a new realm of subatomic science.
First proposed as a theory in the 1960s, the maddeningly elusive Higgs had been hunted by at least two generations of physicists who believed it would help shape our understanding of how the universe began and how its most elemental pieces fit together.
As the highly technical findings were announced by two independent teams involving more than 5,000 researchers, the usually sedate corridors of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, erupted in frequent applause and standing ovations. Physicists who spent their careers in pursuit of the particle shed tears.
The new particle appears to share many of the same qualities as the one predicted by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others and is perhaps the biggest accomplishment at CERN since its founding in 1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.
Rolf Heuer, director of CERN, said the newly discovered particle is a boson, but he stopped just shy of claiming outright that it is the Higgs boson itself - an extremely fine distinction.
"As a layman, I think we did it," he told the elated crowd. "We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson."
The Higgs, which until now had been purely theoretical, is regarded as key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give all objects weight.
The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton's early theories. Gravity was there all the time before Newton explained it. The Higgs boson was believed to be there, too. And now that scientists have actually seen something much like it, they can put that knowledge to further use.
What is the God Particle?
School physics teaches that everything is made up of atoms, and inside atoms are electrons, protons and neutrons. They, in turn, are made of quarks and other subatomic particles. Scientists have long puzzled over how these minute building blocks of the universe acquire mass. Without mass, particles wouldn't hold together and there would be no matter.
One theory proposed by British physicist Peter Higgs and teams in Belgium and the United States in the 1960s is that a new particle must be creating a "sticky" field that acts as a drag on other particles. The atom-smashing experiments at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, have now captured a glimpse of what appears to be just such a Higgs-like particle.