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Commentary

The Convenient Truth

The excitement and anticipation surrounding CERN's scientific seminar on the "Latest update in the search for the Higgs boson" was so palpable at the Route de Meyrin that you could cut it with a kitchen knife, says CERN staff physicist Archana Sharma.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2012.98 Published online 4 July 2012

Archana Sharma at her desk in CERN.

© Subhra Priyadarshini

Mankind's curiosity has always challenged him to charter unknown territories and put an interrogation before every assertion. Questions like "How big is the Universe?", "Is it still expanding" or "What is responsible for mass?" and even attempts to fathom the mysteries surrounding the Big Bang and black holes have been plaguing him, like the annoying itch, for eons.

But the funny thing is whenever mankind has failed to suitably understand one particular phenomenon, he has sought to attribute it to a greater phenomenon-God, or as many would agree, the "The God particle".

This is not yet a solution per se, but a question of context. And it is this context that has quite recently sent the scientific sphere into an infectious tizzy of excitement.

It had taken the genius of an Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and the perseverance of an Edinburgh University emeritus professor Peter Higgs to propose its existence (in addition to Anglert and Brout from Belgium) and around 48 years of research and speculation to attempt to prove it.

Standing on the precipice of a phenomenal scientific breakthrough today is CERN, coming closest to unlocking one of the Universe's best kept cosmic secret.

Higgsteria

The excitement and anticipation surrounding CERN's scientific seminar on the "Latest update in the search for the Higgs boson" was so palpable at the Route de Meyrin in the CERN campus that one of my friends jokingly remarked that you could cut it with a kitchen knife! Understandably so.

Who can say that is not CERN's magnum opus? In the words of Stephen Hawking, "We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something special." And this special revelation may be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the Universe and everything, the space and the space between spaces.

This is just the inception. If black holes and their revelations indeed pave the way for intergalactic time travel, "Beam me up, Scotty" will no longer be confined to the niches of a science fiction fantasy.

When the seminar at CERN, as a curtain raiser to the year's major particle physics conference ICHEP 2012 in Melbourne, announced the evidence of the new particle from both the experiments — ATLAS and CMS — CERN research director Sergio Bertolucci rightly said, "It is hard not to get excited by these results."

"We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we're seeing in the data," he said as all of us gulped every word with bated breath.

The results presented today are labelled preliminary. They are based on data collected in 2011 and 2012, with the 2012 data still under analysis. Publication of the analyses shown today is expected around the end of July. A more complete picture of today's observations will emerge later this year after the LHC provides the experiments with more data.

The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the particle and its significance for our understanding of the Universe. Are its properties as expected for the long-sought Higgs boson, the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic? The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and every visible thing in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between them.

All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.

Windfall for Indian interns

It has been a historic coincidence for 25 Indian interns who are currently on a summer programme at CERN. They are in luck to savour this season of 'evidences and discovery' that is creating history for particle physics. The interns are part of the CERN Summer Student programme, an outreach initiative that provides a once–in–a-lifetime opportunity to many star-struck science enthusiasts to contribute to CERN's technology development and innovation mission.

A bunch of Indian interns at CERN excited about being there at this historic hour.

Says Harsh Arora, a research assistant at CERN, "Every second at work here feels like we are carving a new world for a better tomorrow — bringing the change that is about to occur."

"CERN is a the place to be...especially as the scientists announce having found the elusive Higgs Boson. One can see the excitement among so many people from all over the world whenever the results are unveiled from the high-energy, proton-smashing experiments. I really feel proud to be a part of CMS at CERN," he says, gushing.

"This previous month at CERN has been very challenging and I feel privileged to be a part of a global society dedicated to finding answers of the 'biggest' mysteries," says intern Dikshant Sharma.

India at CERN

In addition to scientists from other parts of the globe, Indian students and scientists from diffrent research institutions and Universities have contributed largely towards the building of the detector, data taking and study of physics. "Today we are really excited to have the latest result of finding the Higgs in terms of four-sigma confidence interval," says Bibhuti Parida.

India actively participated in CERN's accelerator technologies, computing, ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiments as well as its theoretical physics programmes.

Indian scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and Kolkata-based Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre, Delhi University and Punjab University were contributing largely to the LHC experiments. They have been studying the properties of particles generated by the much-hyped proton-proton collisions at LHC start up, to look for answers to questions like the origin of the universe and properties of quark-gluon plasma.