La caza de la partícula de Higgs

CAMBRIDGE – Hace cincuenta años, los físicos de partículas se encontraron con un desafío inesperado. Sus mejores modelos matemáticos daban cuenta de algunas de las fuerzas naturales que explican la estructura y el comportamiento de la materia en un nivel básico (por ejemplo, el electromagnetismo y la fuerza nuclear débil, responsable de la desintegración radioactiva). Pero esos modelos funcionaban con la condición de que las partículas que forman parte de los átomos no tuvieran masa. ¿Cómo podía ser que cuando esas partículas se unen en grandes conglomerados (proteínas, personas, planetas) exhiban el comportamiento que conocemos, si sus elementos constitutivos no pesan absolutamente nada?

Algunos físicos idearon una solución ingeniosa: propusieron que existía un tipo de partícula que todavía no se había detectado (y que con el tiempo fue bautizada en honor del físico británico Peter Higgs). Los físicos llevan medio siglo buscando esta escurridiza “partícula de Higgs”. Pero ahora, después de algunas investigaciones realizadas en el CERN (un laboratorio de física de partículas que se extiende sobre una amplia zona en las cercanías de Ginebra), es posible que esta caza esté cerca del final.

A primera vista, la idea que está detrás de la partícula de Higgs suena extravagante. Higgs y sus colegas propusieron que en realidad ninguna partícula elemental tiene masa (exactamente como piden los modelos matemáticos) y que, por tanto, en condiciones normales todas las partículas deberían volar a la velocidad de la luz. Pero supongamos que todo lo que nos rodea (cada partícula del universo, sin excepción) está sumergido en un inmenso océano de partículas de Higgs, jamás detectado. Cuando la mayoría de las otras partículas van del punto A al punto B, chocan todo el tiempo con partículas de Higgs, y eso las frena. Al observarlas, nos parece que se movieran con el paso entorpecido de unos compradores que deambulan por una tienda abarrotada en época de rebajas. En virtud de esa lentitud, inferimos que tienen masa.

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