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Call them the alternative Higgs hunters. A group of researchers has glimpsed a simulated version of the elusive particle in the behaviour of a handful of atoms on a lab bench.

In marked contrast to the high-energy collisions of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, where the real Higgs boson was made, the atoms in the new work were arranged in an ultracold, flat array. The work suggests that something like the Higgs mechanism, which is thought to have given mass to elementary particles in the hot, early universe, operates in a range of physical situations. Similar physics could even be at play in the alternate universes that pop up in some versions of string theory, if they turn out to exist.

"It says a lot about the unity of physics, and how this is a deep and fundamental concept that appears in many different physical situations," says Subir Sachdev of Harvard University, who studies ultracold systems but was not involved in the new work.

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