The Cern physics laboratory near Geneva appeared to leak crucial details of its hunt for the long-sought Higgs boson particle on Tuesday when it accidentally posted a video announcing the discovery of a new particle on its website.
Senior scientists at Cern are due to reveal the latest findings in the hunt for the famed particle at a much-anticipated press conference in Geneva on Wednesday, and had tried to keep the results under wraps, despite intense rumours that the laboratory had found the particle.
But Cern, which takes credit for inventing the world wide web, inadvertently released a video interview on its website dated 4 July 2012 in which spokesman Joe Incandela states the lab has "observed a new particle".
A press officer at the laboratory blamed a technical glitch for the video going live. The interview was taken down shortly after.
Speaking on the video, Incandela stopped short of claiming the particle was the Higgs boson, saying more work was needed to be sure. "We have quite strong evidence that there's something there. It's properties are still going to take us a little bit of time," he said.
The details Incandela revealed suggest it has the hallmarks of the Higgs particle. "We can see that it decays into two photons, for example, which tells us it's a boson, it's a particle with integer spin, and we know its mass is roughly 100 times the mass of the proton. And this is very significant.
"This is the most massive such particle that exists, if we confirm all this, which I think we will," he said.
"It's something that may, in the end, be one of the biggest observations of any new phenomena in our field in the last 30 or 40 years, going way back to the discovery of quarks," he added.
A spokesperson for Cern said the video went live on the internet due to a "technical fault". They added that the lab had recorded several videos in advance with spokespersons at the lab.
Two teams of physicists at Cern are preparing to announce their latest efforts to discover the Higgs boson at a press conference at the laboratory on Wednesday morning. Details will be unveiled by Fabiola Gianotti and Incandela, the respective leaders of teams that use the giant Atlas and CMS detectors to search for new particles.
The Higgs boson, named after the Edinburgh University physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed it in 1964, has become the most sought-after particle in modern science and its discovery is a major focus of research at the LHC.
Discovery of the particle would be proof of an invisible energy field that fills the vacuum of space. Without it, or something to do its job, there would be no stars, planets or life as we know it.
According to theory, the Higgs field switched on a trillionth of a second after the big bang that flung the universe into existence. Before this moment, all of the particles in the universe were massless and zipped around at the speed of light.
When the Higgs field switched on, it changed the future of the universe. Particles such as the quarks and electrons that make up normal matter felt a "drag" from the field, which manifests itself as mass. The more a particle feels the field, the heavier it becomes. Some particles, like photons, pass through the field untouched, and so remain massless and move at the speed of light.
Some theories known as "supersymmetry" predict the existence of several kinds of Higgs particles, along with a host of other particles that have yet to be discovered.
Whatever Cern announces, there is plenty more work ahead for the scientists. "If something significant and new is found on Wednesday that would be fantastic, but we're not going to know firstly that it's a Higgs boson, or secondly what kind of Higgs particle it might be, until we've made a much more thorough investigation of how it behaves," said Shears.
[Particle collision via Shutterstock]