The Equation

The Equation

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The four things you'll read about the Higgs Boson

The media has been abuzz with the announcement that both the ATLAS and CMS experiments have found a particle with an energy of 1.25 giga electron-volts, presumed to be the Higgs Boson.   In the aftermath of this announcement, there have emerged certain trends; almost all the articles will tell you one or more of the following things:

1. What the Higgs Boson and Higgs Mechanism is.
I recently had a beer with my grandma, and as grandmas are wont to do, she had clipped an article about the Higgs boson out of a newspaper and wanted me to explain to her what it meant. The best explanation I could come up with is to liken it to another boson, the photon. Within the electromagnetic field - a permeating field, like the Higgs field - there can be oscillations. Visible light is such an oscillation, since it can be thought of as an electromagnetic wave. As many people now know, light can also be thought of as a particle, the photon. The photon is simply the particle manifestation of this oscillation within the electromagnetic field. Photons, obviously, have no mass. This analogy was not shot down when I discussed the Higgs discovery with the Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin, so it's what I've continued to go with. 

To explain how the Higgs field interacts, or couples, with other forces and impart mass, a discussion with someone who had also read about the discovery yielded this interesting description: Imagine a party, where you don't know anybody. You can walk through the scene and attract almost no attention. However, if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were to walk through, the partygoers would certainly give them attention. Thus, different particles (you, Brangelina) passing through the Higgs field (the party) are given different amounts of mass (attention). I wasn't given the source, so I can't credit it, but that seemed to be an apt analogy, especially for this blog. 

2. That the Higgs Boson is a huge victory for particle physics and the standard model.
Which it is. It is also an incredible victory for the scientific process: there is a problem where results don't match explanation, a new explanation is proposed, an experiment is created to test the hypothesis, and results are compared to the hypothesis. In this case, it was a resounding, if expensive, success.

3. That the Higgs Boson represents a disappointment for the physics community.

For scientists, nothing is more exciting than the unknown. Sure, it's great to have your ideas validated, but real science happens when you get something that you didn't expect. This is how scientific paradigms are started and ended; on a philosophical level, it's not that this is how science "advances", but rather you get to try and explain new phenomena, increasing understanding of what is already known. 

To interpret finding the Higgs Boson as a disappointment is grossly premature. The Large Hadron Collider has not yet run at its maximum designed energy, so there may be many quirks of quarks to be found when it does. To state that there is nothing to be gained from this episode is silly.

4. That the Higgs Boson, and more, could have been discovered in America, a decade ago. 

In the late 80s, the US Congress approved the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a giant particle accelerator to be built in Texas, that would be able to reach energies almost twice what the LHC can. However, due to a number of factors, mostly political, the project was killed in 1993. 

Some of this discussion may seem like whiny jingoism, but it gets at a deeper point: in the last two decades, the United States has greatly reduced its commitment to basic science.

For more information about the SSC, read Daniel Kevles's magnificent piece on the fate of two American Big Science projects - the SSC and the Human Genome Project - in the early 1990s (JSTOR access required). 

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