pop goes the world: the higgs boson

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  12 July 2012, Thursday

The Higgs Boson

The announcement by Geneva-based CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) last July 4 about its latest accomplishment in its search for the elusive Higgs boson spawned searches and queries on what exactly this thing is.

Also called the “God particle” because physicists theorized that the universe would not exist without it, the Higgs boson is a proposed elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics.

A particle is, according to Wikipedia, “a small localized object to which can be ascribed several physical properties such as volume or mass,” while particle physics studies “the existence and interactions of particles that are the constituents of what is usually referred to as ‘matter’ or ‘radiation’.” Elementary particles “are the basic building blocks of the universe from which all other particles are made.”

CERN itself is cautious in the wording of its announcement, saying on their website that their ATLAS and CMS experiments “see strong indications for the presence of a new particle which could be the Higgs boson.”

The experiments “found hints of the new particle by analyzing trillions of proton-proton collisions from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2011 and 2012.”

The Standard Model of physics predicted that “a Higgs boson would decay into different particles – which the LHC experiments then detect.” The experiments gave a 5 sigma level of significance, which is counted as a “discovery” in terms of certainty.

The Higgs boson is named after British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs who with five others postulated its existence in 1964. If it and its associated Higgs field existed, the theory goes, it would explain “why some elementary particles have mass”, also giving an insight into how matter came into being. In other words, it gives other particles mass.

And as we know from elementary science, all things – living and non-living – are made of matter.

Knowing whether the Higgs boson exists or not helps scientists gain a better understanding of the origin of the universe – which could lead to more technological advancements that could benefit humankind. Warp drive, anyone? Terraforming? The conquest and occupation of space?

The CERN announcement spawned jokes on social media:

The Higgs boson is my co-pilot. (Clarke Kant, Twitter)

Did you hear about the dyslexic physicist who wasted his career searching for the Dog boson? (also Twitter)

What does the Philippines have to do with the Higgs boson?

On the Internet there’s a world map dated 10 July 2012 of countries whose scientists work for, collaborate with, or have linkages to CERN and its projects. This map presents the Philippines as one of 19 countries with which CERN has “scientific contacts”.

Perhaps, eventually, given more emphasis on the development and promotion of science in the country, we might even join the roster of 20 member states of CERN and directly participate in its groundbreaking projects.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, to witness the expansion and advancement of human knowledge in fashions that were only dreamt of before in science fiction, now coming to pass as reality.

This reality is something reconcilable with our mindsets. Adapting to scientific changes is a phenomenon we are used to – in just a few short decades, we have seen the birth of the portable music player, mobile telephone, and laptop computer, gadgets once only seen on Star Trek and other SF shows but that we have absorbed into our daily lives with surprising ease.

Not everyone was optimistic about finding the Higgs boson. Physicist Stephen Hawking lost a $100 bet with Michigan University’s Gordon Kane, having insisted that the particle would not be found.

According to The Economist, it took “five decades, billions of dollars, and millions of man-hours” to find the Higgs boson; “all worth it” in the “quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”   *** 

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