Science & Environment

New Higgs detection 'closes circle’

Higgs event at LHC Image copyright Other
Image caption The low energy work is separate from studies at the Large Hadron Collider

Physicists who detected a version of the Higgs Boson in a superconductor say their discovery closes a "historical circuit".

They also stressed that the low-energy work was “completely separate" from the famous evidence gathered by the Large Hadron Collider.

Superconductivity was the field of study where the idea for the Higgs originated in the 1960s.

But the particle proved impossible to witness because it decays so fast.

This new signature was glimpsed as very thin, chilled layers of metal compounds were pushed very close to the boundary of their superconducting state.

This process creates a "mode" in the material that is analogous to the Higgs Boson but lasts much longer.

Rather than the study of particles, it belongs in the field known as condensed matter physics; it also uses much less energy than experiments at the LHC, where protons are smashed together at just under the speed of light.

No substitute

It was at the LHC in 2012 that the Higgs Boson, believed to give all the other subatomic particles their mass, was detected for the very first time.

The new superconductor discovery was presented amid much discussion at this week’s March Meeting of the American Physical Society in San Antonio, Texas.

It also appeared in the journal Nature Physics in January.

Speaking at the meeting, Prof Aviad Frydman from Bar Ilan University in Israel responded in no uncertain terms to the suggestion that his work could substitute for the LHC.

"That’s complete nonsense," he told the BBC. "In fact it’s kind of embarrassing."

Image copyright Other
Image caption The team used superconducting films made from compounds of niobium (pictured here as a fibre) and indium

Prof Frydman said the convergence of results from "two extremes of physics" was the most striking aspect of his findings, which were the fruit of a collaboration spanning Israel, Germany, Russia, India and the USA.

"You take the high energy physics, which works in gigaelectronvolts. And then you take superconductivity, which is low energy, low temperature, one millivolt.

"You have 10 to the 15 (one quadrillion) orders of magnitude between them, and the same physics governs both! That is the nice thing."

"It's not that our experiment can replace the LHC. It’s completely separate."

Superconductors are materials that, when under critical conditions including temperatures near absolute zero (-273C), allow electrons to move with complete freedom.

It was attempts to understand this property that ultimately led to Peter Higgs and others proposing the now-famous boson.

“In the 1960s there were two distinct, basic problems. One was superconductivity and one was the mass of particles,” Prof Frydman explained.

“People like Phil Anderson developed this mechanism for understanding superconductivity. And the guys from high energy saw this kind of solution, and applied it to high energy physics.

“That’s where the Higgs actually came from.”

So the detection of a superconducting Higgs, he added, is “closing a historical circuit”.

This closure was a long time coming. Detecting the Higgs in a superconductor had seemed almost impossible.

This was because the energy required to excite (and detect) the Higgs mode - even though vastly less than that needed to generate its analogous particle inside the LHC - would destroy the very property of superconductivity. The Higgs mode would vanish almost before it arose.

But when Prof Frydman and his colleagues held their thin films in conditions very close to the “critical transition” between being a superconductor and an insulator, they created a longer-lived, lower-energy Higgs mode.

Other claims of a superconducting Higgs have been made in the past, including one in 2014.

They have all faced criticism. Indeed, Prof Frydman’s conference presentation was also greeted with intense questions from others in the field.

"Like any physical finding, there are different interpretations,” he said. “The Cern experiment is also being contested."

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