The God Particle

by Jad Hilal

On October 8th, the world echoed the cheers of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) for Peter Higgs as he received the Nobel Prize in physics. British Broadcasting Company’s (BBC) Craig Williams calls him, “the man behind one of the most remarkable scientific ideas of the past fifty years.” The Guardian and many others know him as, “the father of the [so-called] ‘God Particle.’” But what has Peter Higgs done to earn a title as prestigious as a Nobel Prize Laureate? The enormous mystery of where subatomic particles acquire their mass has been puzzling scientists of all denominations for decades. However, thanks to the Higgs boson theory and the nearly incomprehensible work amassed from decades of research by the CERN, we may finally have our answer.

This incredible concept started with Peter Higgs’ first theory in 1964, known as the “Higgs Field.” As described by The Guardian scientific correspondent Ian Sample, the Higgs Field is a phenomenon that came into effect a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, before which subatomic particles traveled at the speed of light. Once the Higgs Field came into effect, the field began to slow different particles in accordance with the amount of interaction that each particle had with the field. By this logic, mass should be seen as its proper definition – an attraction between two forces (gravity’s pull on an object). Don Lincoln, in a TED-Ed lecture, explains a comprehensible analogy of this field: think of the field as a group of scientists in a room. When someone like a tax collector comes in, nobody talks to him and he passes easily through the crowd; however, when someone like Peter Higgs enters the room, the scientists cluster around him and slow him down as he walks through the room. The group of scientists represent the Higgs Field, the tax collector a low-mass particle such as an electron, and Peter Higgs a heavy weight particle such as a “top quark.”

But how does the Higgs boson fit into this? The Higgs boson, according to Lincoln’s analogy, would be like a rumor traveling from one end of the party to the other. Essentially, the Higgs boson is a cluster of the Higgs field traveling across itself, making its way throughout the party. Daniel Whiteson, a physicist at CERN, explains that this particle is actively sought via scientific data because its existence would prove Higgs’ theory of subatomic mass. This is done with an enormous machine known as the “Large Hadron Collider,” which lies in an elliptical 27 kilometer-long tunnel. This scientifically revolutionary machine bombards subatomic particles together, creating a contained (but massive) explosion of energy, which in turn releases new particles. The Higgs boson is suspected to be an “intermediate” in one of these reactions, being created after the bombardment of two particles, but then quickly decaying after 1.0 x 10-23 seconds into other (more common) subatomic particles.

The great obstacle that makes the discovery of this intermediate so difficult is that the bombardment cannot be observed directly; the only known information includes the identification of the bombarded particles, the particles produced at the end of the process and the total energy of the reaction. Leon Lederman, an American Physicist, coined the term “god particle” for the Higgs boson for this exact reason—though it is so fundamental for the understanding of the world as we know it, the particle is entirely elusive. So, to discover the high probability of the particle, the collider is run constantly, performing bombardment after bombardment, 40 million times per second, every second of the year, creating an enormous amount of data. This data is compared to the calculated information of what the data would look like with and without the particle’s presence.

On March 14, 2013, the particle was confirmed with 99% certainty. Higgs’ theory, which potentially solved the mystery of mass, was proved to be true (at least as close to true as we can possibly get), and a Nobel Prize was certainly in line.

Though the discovery was an enormous milestone to science, its future remains uncertain. Many scientists consider this discovery to be bittersweet in nature, because further research has not been developed or considered. Wired journalist Adam Mann explains that, “while popular articles often describe how the Higgs might help theorists investigating the weird worlds of string theory, multiple universes, or supersymmetry, the truth is that evidence for these ideas is scant to nonexistent.” This, however, is the real basis of science. There is no “end of the rope” for any given concept; theories are constantly extended, compared, retested or flat-out disproven. So, rather than accept the theory and move on, we should ask ourselves, “what more can we do.”