Not all that long ago, the Tevatron particle accelerator, about 30 miles west of Chicago, was the biggest, baddest atom smasher on the planet. It slammed protons and antiprotons together by the trillions at nearly the speed of light to discover some of high-energy physics' greatest hits, including the top quark a host of other new particles. But it shut down last fall after 28 years of operation, the victim of budget cuts, even as the newer and more powerful Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, began churning out its own discoveries over in Europe.
But the Tevatron is still in the game, in a very big way: physicists analyzing data from some of the huge machine's final runs have uncovered evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, a dreamed-of, talked-about, sought-after particle that has eluded physicists for more than 45 years. It's not the first evidence for the Higgs, which would tie the so-called Standard Model of Physics together with nice, tidy bow. It's not the strongest either: that came late last year, when scientists at the LHC announced an almost-but-not-quite detection that had the physics community humming. But the new findings are an independent, near-confirmation, and when you're talking about some of the trickiest, most complicated experiments ever carried out, that's hugely important. "Based on the current Tevatron data," says a paper describing the new analysis, "and results compiled through December 2011 by other experiments [meaning the LHC], "this is the strongest hint of the existence of a Higgs boson."
Swell. So why is any of this important and what, for that matter, is the Higgs boson? The answer has to do with the masses of various subatomic particles, and those vary wildly. Protons are more massive than electrons, for example, and electrons are way more massive than neutrinos. Photons have no mass at all. For most us, that's no more than a fun fact (and not all that much fun, really). For physicists, though, it's a mystery that demands a solution. Why are the masses so different — and why do any particles have any mass at all?
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