Without the Higgs field, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.
As the highly technical findings were announced by two independent teams involving more than 5,000 researchers, the usually sedate corridors of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, erupted in frequent applause and standing ovations. Physicists who spent their careers in pursuit of the particle shed tears. There were similar celebratory scenes in Melbourne, Australia, where physicists had gathered for a major conference, as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, Princeton, New York, London, and beyond.
The new particle appears to share many of the same qualities as the one predicted by British physicist Peter Higgs and others and is perhaps the biggest accomplishment at CERN since its founding in 1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.
Rolf Heuer, director of CERN, said the newly discovered particle was a boson, but he stopped just shy of saying that it was the Higgs itself - an extremely fine distinction.
"As a layman, I think we did it," he told the elated crowd. "We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson."
The Higgs, which until now had been purely theoretical, is regarded as key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give all objects weight.
The center's atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider, sends protons whizzing around a circular, 17-mile underground tunnel at nearly the speed of light to create high-energy collisions. The aftermath of those impacts can offer clues about dark matter, antimatter, and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the big bang.
Most of the particles that result from the collisions exist for only the smallest fractions of a second. But finding a Higgs-like boson was one of the biggest challenges in physics: Out of some 500 trillion collisions, just several dozen produced "events" with significant data, said Joe Incandela of the University of California at Santa Barbara, leader of the team known as CMS, with 2,100 scientists.
Each of the two teams confirmed Wednesday that they had "observed" a new subatomic particle - a boson. Heuer said the discovery was "most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out what kind of Higgs boson it is." He referred to the discovery as a missing cornerstone of science.
As the leaders of the teams presented their evidence, applause punctuated their talks.
"Thanks, Nature!" joked Fabiola Gianotti, the Italian physicist who heads the team called ATLAS, with 3,000 scientists.
Later, she told reporters that the Standard Model of physics was still incomplete because "the dream is to find an ultimate theory that explains everything. We are far from that."
Higgs, 83, who was invited to be in the audience, said Wednesday's reported discovery appeared to be close to what he predicted.
"It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime," he said.
Outside CERN, the announcement seemed to ricochet around the world with some of the speed and energy of the particle itself.
In an interview with the BBC, the world's most famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, said Higgs deserved the Nobel Prize. Hawking said he had placed a wager that the Higgs boson would never be found.
"It seems I have just lost $100," he said.
Results announced Wednesday capped two weeks of feverish speculation and Internet buzz as the physicists, who had been sworn to secrecy, did a breakneck analysis of some 800 trillion proton-proton collisions over the last two years.
Until last weekend, physicists at the agency were saying that they themselves did not know what the outcome would be.
Expectations soared when it was learned that the five surviving originators of the Higgs boson theory had been invited to the CERN news conference.
Wednesday's celebration was mainly for researchers who explore the deepest, most esoteric levels of particle science. But the particle-hunting effort has paid off in other ways for nonscientists, including contributing to the development of the World Wide Web.
CERN scientists used the early Web to exchange information, and the vast computing power needed to crunch all of the data produced by the atom smasher also boosted development of cloud computing.
Advances in solar energy, medical imaging, and proton therapy used in the fight against cancer have also resulted from the work of particle physicists.
"We're reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we never have done before," Incandela said. "We've kind of completed one particle's story. ... Now we're way out on the edge of exploration."
Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said: "Now some fun begins."
Explaining the Universe
What is the "God particle"?
School physics teaches that everything is made up of atoms, and inside atoms are electrons, protons, and neutrons. They, in turn, are made of quarks and other subatomic particles. Scientists have long puzzled over how these minute building blocks of the universe acquire mass. Without mass, particles wouldn't hold together and there would be no matter.
A theory proposed by British physicist Peter Higgs and teams in Belgium and the United States in the 1960s is that a new particle must be creating a "sticky" field that acts as a drag on other particles. The atom-smashing experiments at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, have now captured a glimpse of what appears to be just such a Higgs-like particle.
Why is this important?
The Higgs is part of many theoretical equations underpinning scientists' understanding of how the world came into being. If it doesn't exist, those theories would need to be overhauled. The fact that it apparently does exist means scientists have been on the right track.
But there's a twist: The measurements seem to diverge slightly from what would be expected under the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. This is exciting for scientists because it opens the possibility to potential new discoveries including a theory known as "super-symmetry," where particles don't just come in pairs - think matter and antimatter - but quadruplets, all with slightly different characteristics.
Scientists will keep probing the new particle until they fully understand how it works. In doing so they hope to understand the 96 percent of the universe still hidden from view. This may result in the discovery of new particles and even hitherto unknown forces of nature.
- By Frank Jordan, Associated Press
This article contains information from the New York Times News Service.