Researchers at CERN (a name derived from the acronym for the French “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”, or European Council for Nuclear Research), a.k.a. home of the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Note the people inside the beam line picture!
The recent discovery of a potential Higgs boson particle or, as the media often prefers to call it, the “God particle”, is one of the few times that advancements in particle physics have made major news headlines. What is it about the Higgs boson that is so fascinating and so important? Granted, it has already established itself as a popular literary device in works of science fiction – in Robert J. Sawyer’s Flashforward and in the ABC television series based off this novel, an accident in a CERN experiment searching for the Higgs boson causes the entire human race to lose consciousness for two minutes, during which time each person has a vision of himself at a specific point in the future. And, Into the Looking Glass by John Ringo features a massive explosion caused by a mishap from a Higgs boson research experiment that destroys the University of Central Florida. In both of these examples, though, the Higgs boson is not explored in its scientific context but rather is invoked simply as a stand-in for advanced scientific research.
The reason why the Higgs boson is so important is because it is viewed as the “missing piece” of the universe. In the 1970s, particle physicists developed the “Standard Model” for explaining the components of the universe. In the Standard Model, it is established that “all matter around us is made of elementary particles…[which] occur in two basic types called quarks and leptons” (“The Standard Model”). There are six types of particles in each category, related to each other in pairs or “generations.” The first generation contains the lightest and most stable particles, while the second and third generations contain the heavier and less stable particles.
These elementary particles are controlled by four fundamental forces: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. These forces are the result of force-carrying particles, which are categorized under a broader group called “bosons.” Each fundamental force corresponds to a particular boson. For example, the electromagnetic force is carried by the “photon”, and electromagnetic fields depend on the photon to transfer electromagnetic force to matter. The Higgs boson would be responsible for transferring mass to matter.
According to the Standard Model, it is impossible for matter to simply naturally have mass. Instead, particles gain mass by getting bogged down by it while passing through a field called the Higgs field. If the Higgs boson exists, “everything that has mass gets it by interacting with the all-powerful Higgs field, which occupies the entire universe” (Atteberry). The discovery of the Higgs boson would thereby prove the existence of the Higgs field and validate the Standard Model of the universe.
On July 4, 2012, scientists at CERN working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced the discovery of a particle that behaved like a Higgs boson. The LHC, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, consists of “a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way” (“The Large Hadron Collider”). Two high-energy particle beams travel in opposite directions around the ring, toward each other at close to the speed of light before collision. They are guided around the accelerator ring by the superconducting electromagnets. Thousands of new particles are produced when the beams collide, and detectors allow scientists to identify new particles by observing their behavior. In these extreme conditions of collision, unknown atomic particles may appear, such as the Higgs boson.
On March 14, 2013 at the Moriond Conference in Italy, preliminary new results from the LHC showed that the particle found in July was looking more and more like the Higgs boson. However, complete confirmation of this fact has not yet been achieved because it is unknown “whether this is the Higgs boson of the Standard Model of particle physics, or possibly the lightest of several bosons predicted in some theories that go beyond the Standard Model” (CERN press office).
Although scientists hate it, there’s a reason why the media has branded the Higgs boson the “God particle” and there’s a reason why it’s a point of such fascination with science fiction writers. Essentially, if the Higgs boson is discovered, it explains why all matter in the universe – oceans, buildings, people like you and me – has mass. In looser terms, it explains why all matter in the universe exists. Pretty exciting stuff.
Written by Constance Kaita
Image courtesy of CERN (http://home.web.cern.ch/about/accelerators/large-hadron-collider)
Atteberry, Jonathan. “What exactly is the Higgs boson?” HowStuffWorks.com. How Stuff Works: Science. 24 January 2012. Web. 11 June 2013.
CERN press office. “New results indicate that particle discovered at CERN is a Higgs boson.” CERN.ch. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 14 March 2013. Web. 11 June 2013.
“The Large Hadron Collider.” CERN.ch. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. n.d. Web. 11 June 2013.
“The Standard Model.” CERN.ch. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. n.d. Web. 11 June 2013.