A few years ago, celebrated British physicist Stephen Hawking was widely reported in the press to have placed a provocative public bet that the LHC (along with all particle accelerators that preceded it) would never find the Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” believed responsible for having imbued massive particles with their mass when the universe was very young.
His pronouncement caused a stir in the global physics community, and the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs, whose name had gotten attached to the hypothetical particle (Higgs had done some work in the 1960s, as had several other physicists, paving the way for the theoretical existence of the mass-imparting boson) took the challenge personally, complained about Hawking, and later lamented that to answer Hawking’s challenge would have been “like criticizing the late Princess Diana.”
In fact, informal polls of physicists over the last decade have shown that an overwhelming majority believed that the existence of the Higgs was a foregone conclusion and that all that was needed was simply to run the LHC long enough: the Higgs would eventually show up. Hawking—known for controversial and contrarian pronouncements—was seen as simply throwing around his weight.
But the Higgs boson never appeared. Running continually at an unprecedented energy level of seven trillion electron volts since March 31, 2010, the LHC has been amassing petabytes of data that are being analyzed by a grid of interlinked computers worldwide in search of the missing boson. And yesterday, August 22, at the Biennial International Symposium on Lepton-Photon Interactions at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, the bombshell was dropped: CERN scientists declared that over the entire range of energy the Collider had explored—from 145 to 466 billion electron volts—the Higgs boson is excluded as a possibility with a 95% probability.