You probably know by now that the Higgs Boson has very likely been detected at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider (LCH). How could you not, it’s been all over the news for days and the big annoucement coincided with the American July 4th holiday. Still, I know a lot of people seem to have missed it or didn’t understand what it was all about. I was sure all my relatives would be talking about it July 4th and somehow, I thought I’d probably be asked to explain it, so I spent a while brushing up on various analogies to explain the Higgs field.
There’s the snow analogy: the Higgs Boson is like a snowflake, the Higgs field like a field of snow, a photon like a skier who slides across the surface with no resistance, heavier particles are like a man trying to walk in the snow, his feet sinking into it with each step, slowing him down. Or the Hollywood party analogy: The Higgs field is like an Oscar after-party, a photon is like an average nobody who can pass through the party-goers quickly drawing no attention to himself, heavier particles are like a Hollywood star trying to walk through the party with party-goers accumulating around him and slowing his progress.
As it turned out, no one asked. Thinking about it afterwards, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. The relatives you see at holidays seldom talk about topics like physics or cosmology (at least in my family). More likely, the talk is about sports or the latest movies.
Well anyway, this Higgs Boson thing is big news, probably the biggest science news that will happen in our lifetime. People in the future will look back at this the way we do at Einstein’s paper on Special Relativity. Like relativity, even though we’re pretty sure it’s correct, it still has to be tested and retested. Already it seems a sure enough thing that Stephen Hawking has conceded a $100 bet that the Higgs Boson would not be discovered. It’s almost certain there will be Nobel Prizes for this.
So what’s the big deal about this Higgs Boson thing?
- It fills in the last missing particle predicted by the standard model of physics, further confirming that the standard model correctly describes reality.
- It explains why all the other particles have mass, essentially why the Universe exists
- It helps explain the Electroweak force, the combination of electromagnetic and weak forces
- It may spell trouble for supersymmtery
- It may provide evidence that supports (or doesn’t) some variants of String theory / M theory
- It’s a big win for open science and free software
- It proves CERN Scientists are typeface-challenged
- And, of course, it proves the LHC was worth the money put into it!
If there’s any downside or disappointment here, it’s that the discovery had to wait so long to be made when it could have been made a decade ago, right here in Texas. We were building the biggest particle accelerator in history in Texas back in the 1990s, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). The SSC had a circumference of 87 kilometers and an energy of 20 to 40 TeV per proton, compared to the LHC’s modest 27 kilometers and 4 to 7 TeV. What happened? Politics. Faced with budget increases leading to a projected cost of 12 Billion dollars, Democrat Jim Slattery successfully campaigned for legislation that evetually killed the project. President Clinton signed the bill killing the SSC even though he acknowledged that “abandoning the SSC at this point would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science”.
That’s exactly what happened and, as in so many areas of science and culture, the US began falling behind the rest of the world. I suspect if this ever leads to really crazy cool inventions like faster than light travel or anti-gravity transports, they won’t be flying a US flag. But hopefully they’ll let us hitch a ride.