EARLY Wednesday morning, physicists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced they had likely found one of the biggest missing pieces in the puzzle of understanding the universe.
After months of experiments, the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle only theorized to exist before, was all but confirmed. The tizzy it created in the science world has few rivals in the last 100 years.
It's complicated stuff, but Stan Greenspoon, physics professor and chair of pure and applied sciences at Capilano University, says there's no reason the rest of us can't share in the momentous discovery.
For decades, physicists have worked under the assumption that particles - the tiniest pieces of matter within atoms -had mass, but there was no confirmation as to why.
In the 1960s, particle physicist Peter Higgs theorized that some sort of field and a corresponding subatomic particle exist to make that so.
"The idea is that this Higgs field permeates all of space and acts differently on different particles to give them their masses," Greenspoon said, comparing it to "molasses in space."
For a field to exist, like the gravitational field or electromagnetic field, it must have a matching particle. By creating the Higgs boson, which decays and disappears almost immediately, CERN scientists have finally made that link.
Finding the particle was more like finding a needle long sought in a haystack than a serendipitous discovery, Greenspoon said.
"Had it not been discovered, we would have to go back to square one. This whole standard model, which had been successful, would have to be rethought because something which is necessary for it to be complete would not exist," Greenspoon said.
Finding the extremely elusive itty-bitty spec of existence was a sophisticated process.
Using the Large Hadron Collider, a subterranean tube encircling 27 kilometres under the French-Swiss border, particle physicists fired protons from hydrogen atoms into each other and observed the results.
"If you do it at sufficiently high energies, a certain small fraction of collisions will produce what's called a Higgs boson, a particle associated with the Higgs field," Greenspoon said. "You're actually recreating the conditions at the beginning of the universe - the Big Bang."
One Nobel Prize winning physicist described the process more inelegantly as "smashing two clocks together to see how they work."
The Higgs boson is as often called "the God particle" but Greenspoon and other physicists cringe at the term.
"Because it gives everything mass, it sounds to be such an important particle," he said. "Higgs boson doesn't sound too sexy but 'God particle,' wow, it sounds important."
Great as the discovery is, don't expect any God particle wonder drugs or life-changing inventions to come from announcement, Greenspoon warns. At least not yet.
This is firmly in the realm of pure science - experiments done to build up base knowledge with no immediate application for the real world. But today's pure science is the next generation's life-changing technology.
In 1950, scientists mused that everyone in the future would have a personal helicopter and cars would be obsolete, Greenspoon recalls.
"But it never occurred to any of them that the average person would be walking around with a computer in their pocket that could access almost every library in the world," he said. "People who invented the transistor never foresaw the smart phone."
Indeed, 100 years earlier, facing critical questions from the British minister of finance on the value of his research into electricity and magnetism, a physicist replied, "Sir, one day you will tax this," Greenspoon added with a chuckle.
More than 10,000 scientists from 117 countries run CERN's laboratories and many experiments, but some local Canadians had a key role in what is being called the largest physics discovery of the 21st century.
A contingent, 150-strong, from the University of British Columbia's TRIUMF physics lab, had a role in analyzing the data produced in the Higgs experiments.
The Higgs discovery won't change what Greenspoon teaches his first-year physics students when they come to Capilano University in September but it will likely be finding its way into the curriculum of advanced students almost immediately.