by Michael Baruzzini
Researchers with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire), announced today that they have found a particle consistent with the long-sought-for Higgs boson. Finding the Higgs has been a major expectation in fundamental physics for a while. As science writer Sean Carroll puts it, “Has there ever been a scientific discovery (if indeed we will be able to call it that) that has been anticipated so far ahead of time? Can’t think of any off the top of my head.”
What is it? — The Higgs boson is the last major component of the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is the collected understanding of all of those basic elements that make up the universe at the most fundamental level. The Higgs boson is basically the particle counterpart of the Higgs field, which is hypothesized to explain why particles have mass. One analogy physicists have used to describe the role of the Higgs is that of individuals moving through a crowd. ‘Nobodies’ can move through quickly, while ‘celebrities’ are mobbed by the crowd and their progress is slowed. The crowd is like the Higgs field. Nobodies are like low-mass particles: they interact more weakly with the Higgs “crowd” and are thus freer to move. High mass particles are like the celebrities: they interact more strongly with the Higgs “crowd”, and their movement is thus more impeded.
So did they find it? — This website has the answer: http://www.havewefoundthehiggsbosonyet.org/. The search for the Higgs involves smashing protons together at near-light speeds in the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile-circumference magnetically-shielded tunnel lying underground on the border of France and Switzerland. When the protons collide, they shatter into smaller particles, one of which is hopefully the Higgs. Two independent teams at the LHC, using two different detectors, both found a Higgs-mass boson with a statistical confidence exceeding that which is standard for a “discovery” in particle physics. So yes,they found the Higgs. Now, the question is what more is there to learn about it. It is in the further questions about this newly-confirmed Higgs-mass boson that researchers are now focused, and which account for the caution of the researchers in saying definitively that they have found “the Higgs.”
Why does it matter? – According to physicists’ current understanding, the Higgs boson ought to be there. If it didn’t turn up, it would be a sign that the basic accepted model for fundamental physics was seriously flawed. If it is found, it is a sign of the opposite: that fundamental physics is on the right track. That being said, physicists are also ironically hopeful that the Higgs will turn out to be not exactly as expected. If it turns out to be exactly as predicted, there are fewer leads to follow to find out more. If it turns out to not match predictions, however, the obvious question will be why? In answering that question, there will be much to learn.
What can I do with it? — Science, and that’s about it. There are no practical applications of the Higgs anywhere in sight, but this is, I believe, science at its best. It is in man’s nature to want to know; it is in finding things out that we are what we are. Moreover, in learning about His Creation, we honor God. We should not always look for a way to turn the search for the beauty of nature into an attempt to exercise power.
“God particle?” — No. The Higgs has no more or less to do with God or Creation than any other element of nature. The nickname comes from a book written by Leon Lederman in the 90′s. Physicists generally do not use it, and are annoyed by it. It has arisen mainly as a media trick for generating interest.
Michael Baruzzini is editor of The Deeps of Time.
Image: public domain