Wednesday, CERN(the European Organization for Nuclear Research) announced the discovery of a new particle. They are 99.9999% certain it is real, and that it exists, and many researchers suspect it is the long-sought Higgs boson, first described nearly five decades ago by British physicist Peter Higgs. That’s the theory. Of course, in popular physics, the Higgs boson has come to be termed the “God particle” both because of its amazing alleged properties, and because of the heretofore extreme difficulty in proving its existence. Many people understandably become offended at that term, but apart from the offense some take at this label, the discovery, if it is what it purports, relieves some tension in mainstream science. Some worry that this discovery is mostly a put-on, done up to justify the expense of the extraordinary Large Hadron Collider straddling the border of France and Switzerland. CERN has spent a mind-boggling sum of money, much of it derived from governments, mainly in Europe, but also including a sizable chunk of dough from the US.
To make any sense of this, you must first plumb the depths of the quantum world. In sub-microscopic space, too small even for our ordinary instrumentation to see, the universe is a sea of tiny particles. We think in terms of atoms, and perhaps their well-known constituents, the electron, neutron, and proton, but the particles being examined in the LHC at CERN are much smaller, and are the parts of matter that are the building blocks of all of these, or so it’s thought. Strange things happen at the quantum scale, and there are odd rules for how particles behave. For instance, a particle’s velocity and precise position can never be known simultaneously, known as the Uncertainty Principle. More, the act of observing a particle appears to change its behavior, meaning that by merely looking at a thing, you are changing it, and seemingly changing its state in the recent past. This is known as the quantum enigma. It’s all very strange compared with the seemingly orderly world we observe when just out for a stroll in the park.
One of the questions that has plagued physics for many years is the relationship between quantum theory, or “Quantum Mechanics,” and the larger scale universe seemingly described most accurately by General Relativity, the body of of work that had been Albert Einstein’s. The problem in linking the two has always been the question of gravity. Einstein’s theory doesn’t work at the quantum scale, and nothing has seemed to make sense way down at the most fundamental levels of matter. What gives matter the mass we observe? Why does a lead ingot weigh so much and a feather weigh so little? How does gravity interact with either? How does gravity work at all? These are some of the questions the Higgs boson was proposed to answer.
The Higgs boson is a particle said to exist in a field, and that field interacts with ordinary matter, so they theorize. In this theory, the Higgs boson gives mass to particles that would not otherwise exhibit any. Think of the various particles as being weightless, but by the addition of a soup of Higgs particles, the other particles get mass. Another way to envision this might be to think of elementary particles experiencing a kind of drag through otherwise empty space, like a ship plowing across a sea. Larger particles experience more drag, while smaller ones experience minimal resistance, and it is this measured resistance that equates to what you and I observe as mass, and here in our ordinary existence, “weight.”
Remembering that in the quantum world, all the particles are in motion constantly, whether examining that chunk of lead or that bit of down, this may explain why a piece of matter, whatever its particulars, seems to have a static weight even when it’s not moving(mass.) You might wonder why any of this is important, but the fact of the matter is that for all our technical sophistication, there are many things we do not yet know about how our universe works, and still many things to be learned about even some of the most fundamental properties of the things we experience in daily life.
Gravity is one of those things. Sir Isaac Newton described it mathematically, yet even the father of modern physics could not explain how it functioned. Asked if he believed that gravity was a pull or a push, he responded that he knew not, but only that he could show the math on predicting its behavior. Of course, Newton’s laws were what we relied upon going to the Moon, and as we discovered in the process, Einstein’s General Relativity was a better estimation. Einstein described gravity as a force derived by the bending of space-time, in the presence of mass. His math works, and more closely than Newton’s, but when applied to the smallest scales of matter, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
Mainstream physics has been undergoing a sort of dueling battle for nearly two generations, because quantum theory seems to hold up in the laboratory, but General Relativity seems to hold up at the large scales of the universe, but the two theories simply cannot agree. This has led to a nervous tension over what is known as the “standard model,” and what has been needed all along is to somehow rectify the chasm between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. This elusive solution is known variously as the “Grand Unified Theory,” or more simply, “the Theory of Everything.” The basic notion is that one single theory ought to be able to mathematically describe the whole universe, from the largest to the smallest phenomenon, from the big bang to the tiny particles that constitute the smallest bits of matter. Such a theory, if ever derived and tested, could offer us the ability to create many more technological wonders, and would answer some of the basic questions about our existence.
This explains why CERN built the gargantuan LHC, because to observe particles on such a small scale requires unbelievable energy. At the LHC, they are flinging bundles of particles around a 17 mile ring, through a super-cooled tube, where the path of the particles are influenced by supermagnets, slightly altering their straight-line proclivities in order to stay within the curves of the circle. These bundles of hadrons are traveling at some fantastic fraction of the speed of light, over 99%, and they are collided with another bundle, traveling the opposite direction. At each of the point about the ring where these collisions occur, they have vast detectors, and in a sense, you could imagine these detectors as being like gargantuan digital cameras. When the bundles of hadrons collide, some pass harmlessly without interaction, but a relative few smack head-on into their onrushing counterparts in the opposing beam. What results is fireworks. An explosion of smaller particles is released, and energy and radiation of various sorts, flying off and spinning and roiling briefly as they are annihilated.
All of this is being undertaken in order to try to understand how our universe works. What we have discovered over the course of the last century is that to understand the vast scale of our universe, its origins, and its function, we will first need to grasp in intimate detail the workings of the smallest fragments of matter and energy. Understanding the interactions between and among the trillions of atoms in the human body, or the very strange concept of Quantum Entanglement(whereby the mere observation of one particle seems to effect its entangled partner particle instantly even across vast distances) will be key in developing new technologies. On the other hand, there is a certain danger to all of this, and it comes in the form of mistakenly arriving at the conclusion that we can know everything. While in theory, we should be able to discover everything about the physical world around us, still, it would be easy to slip into a sort of intellectual smugness by which we decide we’ve understood it all.
The trouble is that with all our fancy instruments, and all of our experimentation, we really haven’t seen nearly so much as we imagine we’ve seen. At the quantum scales under examination, much of the work is a statistical analysis, looking for signals and traces and any evidence at all to support a hypothesis. That’s not to say that we haven’t learned a great deal, but it is to suggest that we should not leap to conclusions too easily. It’s true to say that CERN has evidence that they’ve found something, but whether it is really the Higgs boson, or whether it is something else entirely remains a matter of speculation. For all the fanfare, it really comes down to this: There’s something there, but what exactly it is, and how it functions and fits into the standard model, we cannot yet say, and we should not rush in foolishly in order to justify a rather large science project, and while we’re at it, let’s lay off the labeling that puts many in a mind to call it all blasphemy. Let us experiment, and find the answer if we can. That is what science is all about.