There were more fireworks than usual on the Fourth of July when physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, announced that, in all likelihood, they had found the illusive Higgs boson, the Holy Grail of particle physics because they were able to verify the theory predicted by the “Standard Model,” which explains the makeup of all particles in the universe.
Nicknamed the “God particle,” the Higgs boson gives all matter—protons, neutrons, and electrons—their mass. While it is not possible to say where this discovery may lead, it already brings humanity a step closer to understanding the universe and may even open up the way to explore parallel universes (another unproven theory that excites physicists and laypeople alike).
While the scientists involved were thrilled and the conference at which the announcement was made saw the rare case of physicists in the audience rising as one to offer a standing ovation, the official spokesman was cautious, as is the habit of scientists. “We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer. “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”
But what to expect next? Particle physics is about probability, and over the next few months, physicists will comb through millions of collisions to firm up the mass and other properties of the Higgs boson. Only when this tedious work is completed will physicists be able to apply their new knowledge to answer other questions. Does the Standard Model of subatomic particles need modification? What new insights might this discovery shed on the mysterious components that comprise much of the non-visible universe, such as dark matter and energy?
This breakthrough did not come cheap. It was made by CERN’s recently commissioned particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, which consists of two detectors housed within seventeen miles of underground tunnels buried below the Alps on the French-Swiss border. By crashing high-energy protons together, they have been able to create conditions similar to those existing when the Big Bang occurred over thirteen billion years ago. At a cost of $10 billion, it is the single most expensive piece of laboratory equipment in the history of mankind.
This project is a triumph for pure science. This discovery has no immediate application, costs billions to produce, and likely excites little more than a headline for a day or two before it is forgotten by the general public. But, for scientists, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities that will keep them busy for decades.
Let’s give credit to the scientists who have sold this project to politicians, who would have seen precious few votes, to fund an exploration into the inner workings of the universe. Full marks to the PR genius who dubbed the Higgs boson the “God particle.” After all, spending a measly $10 billion to glimpse God has got to be cheap. As it turns out, there was no PR genius behind the term “God particle”; its origins are much more mundane. It comes from the title of a book by Nobel physicist Leon Lederman, whose draft title was The Goddamn Particle to describe the frustrations of trying to nail the Higgs. The title was cut back to The God Particle by his publisher, who did not want to include a swear word in the title.
Behind this big story is a sidebar, which has allowed the media to humanize it. In the 1960s, English physicist Peter Higgs predicted the existence of the new particle and, thankfully, is alive today to witness the discovery of the subatomic particle that bears his name. But there is another name (in lower case) associated with this discovery. It is Satyeendra Nath Bose, an Indian physicist who provided the foundations of quantum statistics, which Higgs used for his theory. The family of particles called bosons is named after him, of which the Higgs is only one.
While Higgs is now in the running for a Nobel Prize, the man whose shoulders he stood on was never considered for such an honor, despite his not inconsiderable contributions to physics. Perhaps in this moment of scientific euphoria, the forgotten scientist of this discovery should be given equal billing.