Joy for physicists as Higgs boson tracked down
Particle physicists have announced what some say is the biggest discovery in forty years. After decades of hunting, and billions of dollars spent, the mysterious Higgs boson has been found.
The main lecture theatre at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland is normally a fairly sober sort of place, but yesterday morning, the talks kept getting interrupted by cheers from the packed hall. Outbursts of wild applause greeted each new chart on the overhead projector; the engineers and scientists lining the room (some had queued all night to secure their seats) could have been mistaken for the audience at a rock concert.
Why all the fuss? Yesterday, the director of the CERN laboratory revealed the results of the largest science experiment ever conducted. Billions of Euros had been invested; thousands of scientists had spent years searching – but at last they had found what they were looking for: the Higgs boson.
If scientists have spent years searching for the Higgs, they have spent decades trying to explain to the rest of the world why it might be worth the bother. Some have called it the Holy Grail of modern physics, or ‘the God Particle’. The Higgs is what gives other particles their mass, science explains. It could illuminate the secrets of dark matter. It could confirm – or overturn – our basic understanding of the universe.
But, digging beyond this bold talk, the reality of the Higgs boson is much vaguer than it first appears. For one thing, when scientists say they have ‘found’ the Higgs, what they mean is something like: ‘we have plotted the results of millions of experiments on a graph and there is a tiny bump in the line that suggests a big, unknown particle has, for a fraction of a trillionth of a second, flickered into existence before vanishing again.’
For another, no one yet knows what sort of Higgs boson this mystery particle might be. Is it the one predicted by the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics? Or does it point to a different theory entirely? If so, is it even the only Higgs boson? Some theoreticians think there might be as many as five Higgs bosons out there, lurking in the statistical fog.
People often think science has all the answers; that humans have got the universe all figured out. The truth is that, even at the cutting edge of particle physics, everything is uncertain. We have just seen the most exciting discovery for forty years. The result? Only a million new questions.
New worlds to conquer
So why celebrate so wildly? All that money and time spent on the hunt, and for what? A particle that we cannot see, that vanishes as soon as it is created and serves no conceivable practical purpose.
But for physicists, finding the Higgs boson is like Christopher Columbus finding a new continent. New vistas open up, new paths snake invitingly into the distance. Yesterday’s news is exciting not because it expands the frontiers of the known, but because it shows how much exploring there still is left to do.
- Will science ever solve all the mysteries of the universe?
- Should the billions of Euros spent at CERN have been used instead to fight disease or help the poor?
- Create a work of art or graphic design expressing what you think a Higgs boson would look like if (breaking every law of physics) it was visible to the naked eye.
- In groups, decide what you think is the most exciting science discovery of all time. Each group then has three minutes to make the case for their discovery being the best. At the end, the class should vote on the winner.
Some People Say...
“Better a world of questions than a world of answers.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So this Higgs boson particle really does nothing useful at all?
- Well, it has no immediate practical uses. It won’t revolutionise current technology, no.
- But I’m supposed to care that it could change our theories of particle physics?
- Perhaps yes. Even if the pure theory isn’t exciting for you, theoretical advances in physics have had major real world consequences in the past, from the atom bomb to the semiconductor or the satellite phone. The Higgs boson could change our understanding of the nature of matter. Who knows what technology could flow from that, in the long run?
- The Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or CERN for short, is host to more than 10,000 particle physicists from around the world. It is jointly funded by 21 European countries.
- Largest science experiment
- The CERN lab is most famous for being the home of the Large Hadron Collider, a 27km long magnetised tunnel in which subatomic particles are smashed into each other at close to the speed of light. The energy released by such a collision creates conditions that have only naturally occurred in the few milliseconds directly after the Big Bang.
- God Particle
- Most particle physicists hate this term, which has been widely picked up (and misinterpreted) by the popular press.
- Dark matter
- Dark matter is a mysterious substance that accounts for the vast majority of matter in the universe. It is invisible and hardly interacts with normal matter at all. The only way we know it exists is by spotting the effects of its gravitational pull.
- Before vanishing again
- A Higgs boson very quickly decays into smaller particles, called quarks. It is only by studying these quarks that physicists can infer the presence of a Higgs boson.