What is the Higgs boson?

CMS data computer generated image showing collision data that helped identify the Higgs boson Photo: Cern/Handout/DPA/Press Association Images

It has been called one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. On July 4 2012, physicists at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland announced that they had discovered a Higgs-like particle to much celebration.

Their discovery was confirmed as the Higgs boson on March 14 this year, bringing to an end a 50-year search.

It also singled out Professor Peter Higgs as the only person to have a fundamental particle named after them.

Professor Peter Higgs Credit: David Cheskin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The Newcastle born physicist was the first scientist to come up with the theory that promised the missing link in our understanding of how the universe works.

However, it was not until the construction of the world’s biggest, most expensive and most technologically advanced experiment many years later that it was proved the Higgs boson particle actually existed.

View of the beam tunnel at the Large Hadron Collider Credit: John Von Radowitz/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Those experiments were carried out in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a huge underground particle accelerator deep below the Swiss countryside. Inside this 27 km tube, bits of atoms are routinely accelerated close to the speed of light and smashed into each other.

The CMS detector on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The huge machine that was used by scientists in search of the Higgs Credit: John Von Radowitz/PA Archive/Press Association Images

When they collide they break up into even smaller parts and, put simply, the Higgs boson turned out to be one of the small parts. And when I say small I mean tiny, much too tiny to be seen so two huge machines called ATLAS and CMS were used to detect them.

In a sense scientists at CERN were recreating the conditions found just after the big bang, when our universe was created 13.8 billion years ago.

At this point particles came into existence and, because they had no mass, they whizzed about at the speed of light.

As the young universe cooled, this took just a trillionth of a second, the Higgs field grew spontaneously to cover the entire cosmos.

Any particle that interacted with the Higgs acquired a mass. The more a particle interacted with this field, the heavier it became.

So, what do we mean by mass? Well, basically, that a particle has substance to enable them to come together to form atoms which in turn bond together to form planets, stars, animals and everything we see in the universe.

The Higgs is thought to be prevalent throughout the universe, giving mass to some particles. Credit: ABACA ABACA PRESS/ABACA/Press Association Images

Think of the Higgs field as a cosmic glue, slowing down particles just like the way your legs are slowed down when you try to run through water.

Some particles, like the photon (which make up light), do not interact with it and are left with no mass at all.

The Higgs boson is the visible manifestation of the Higgs field. It’s a bit like a wave on the surface of the sea.

As yet there are no practice applications for the Higgs boson but, taking into account its pivotal role in the universe, its discovery is likely to lead to more breakthroughs.

In fact scientists think they may be on the verge of detecting another mysterious substance called dark matter.

So, as the excitement over the Higgs boson subsides, scientists are knuckling down to write the next chapter in our scientific understanding.