Missing piece of science puzzle may have been found

The science world is buzzing with gossip. Researchers at CERN, it is whispered, have solved one of the great riddles of physics: has the mysterious Higgs boson come to light at last?

Scientists across the world are on tenterhooks today. Two teams from the CERN particle physics laboratory are due to present the latest report on the search for the ‘Higgs boson’, a mysterious particle that scientists have hunted for nearly half a century. Now, say the latest rumours, they may have found it.

CERN is the home of the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest science experiment in the world. Inside a 27km long chamber, buried over 150 metres underground, tiny particles are smashed together at close to the speed of light, in conditions that mimic the Big Bang. Scientists watch millions of these collisions, and carefully examine the debris. Somewhere in the wreckage, they hope to find some tell-tale sign of the Higgs boson.

Finding the Higgs boson has been described as the Holy Grail of modern physics. Why? Because it is the missing piece in a scientific jigsaw puzzle.

The way matter works, in science, is described by a theory called the Standard Model, which explains how the building blocks of the universe fit together. For forty years, this Standard Model has been proved correct by experiment after experiment – but it has a crucial problem. It predicts the existence of the Higgs boson, which has never been found.

To find the particle would be to confirm the truth of the Standard Model theory, which would be an exciting day for science. Better yet, finding out more about the Higgs boson would allow scientists to understand more about the deepest and most fundamental laws of the Universe – the laws that have governed all existence since time began. That is what many are hoping for from tomorrow’s announcement.

Of course, the rumours could be false. In fact, it could be the case that the Higgs boson simply does not exist. If experiments at CERN cannot find it soon, physicists will have to tear up the Standard Model and start again.

It would also be the second bizarre result to come out of CERN this year, following the earlier discovery of neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light – something that, according to conventional physics, should be impossible.

The edge of reason

Those hunting for the Higgs boson do so in the belief that the mysteries of science will one day be unravelled; that the universe, as one Nobel prize-winning physicist put it, ‘is simple, symmetric, and aesthetically pleasing – a universe that we humans, with our limited perspective, will someday understand.’

That, say some thinkers, is a piece of foolish optimism, perhaps even arrogance. Why, they ask, should the universe be something that our mere human minds can comprehend? Problems like the missing Higgs boson or the speeding neutrinos tell us only one thing: that our best scientific theories are only crude approximations of the true reality they attempt to describe.

You Decide

  1. Is science the best way of understanding the universe?
  2. Is hunting the Higgs boson a useful way to spend money and time?

Activities

  1. What are the fundamental subatomic particles as predicted by the Standard Model? Create a ‘rogues gallery’ of the most important with brief explanations.
  2. Finding the Higgs boson, or not finding it, would be a revolutionary moment in science. Do some further research to find another revolutionary scientific moment from the last 500 years, and report on it to your class.

Some People Say...

“Science will one day explain every mystery.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would scientists want the universe to be ‘simple, symmetric, and aesthetically pleasing?’
The whole project of science is to try to explain everything that happens using the smallest possible number of laws. So, for example, if a dog knocks over a table, we don’t say the resulting mess was caused by the law of falling forks, the law of falling knives, the law of falling plates, etc. We say it was caused by the law of gravity.
So?
The point is that, in theory, the universe could have lots of different laws, or the laws could change depending on where you are, or the laws could switch on and off at different times of day. That would make the laws of science impossible for humans to understand. We onlyhope the laws are simple and consistent – we don’t know for sure.

Word Watch

CERN
The European Organisation for Nuclear Research operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. Established in 1954, 20 European countries are involved. CERN was also the birthplace of the World Wide Web, after the work of scientist, Tim Berners-Lee.
Particle physics
A branch of physics that studies the interactions between the tiny particles that make up matter.
Big Bang
According to most physicists, the whole universe was once concentrated into a tiny area the size of a single atom. It exploded in a huge burst of energy, and has been expanding ever since.
Holy Grail
In Arthurian legend, the Holy Grail was a sacred artefact with magical powers. King Arthur and his knights spent years searching for it. Metaphorically, it means anything which many people are looking for.

Subjects

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