In July, 2012, researchers at CERN, home to the world’s largest particle accelerator, announced the discovery of a new, never-before-seen particle. In March, 2013, it was confirmed to be the Higgs boson, popularly called the God Particle. The Higgs boson was originally theorized in 1964 by a Scottish physicist named Peter Higgs to account for several unsolved mysteries in physics, including the mass of fundamental particles and the range of the weak force.
The Higgs boson has been described (rather misleadingly) by the media as the “God Particle” because it is believed to give mass to fundamental particles. The Higgs boson is the particle which is associated with the Higgs field, a field believed to permeate all of space-time. This field has the effect of slowing down certain particles to varying degrees, resisting their acceleration and giving them inertia. For example, the Higgs field does not interact with photons, hence they are massless, yet it does have an effect on quarks, giving them mass. Brian Greene, a Columbia physicist, analogizes the effect of the Higgs field to a vat of molasses slowing down a ping-pong ball. The Higgs ocean exhibits a drag force on particles when they attempt to accelerate, giving them the property of mass.
The discovery of the Higgs boson is not significant “merely” because it verifies our theory of mass. There is also great hope that the discovery of the Higgs—and any discrepancies it has with the Standard Model theory of Particle Physics—will point the way to new developments in theoretical physics. The biggest issues in physics have to do with the two breakthrough theories of the 20th century: General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity considers the universe macroscopically, describing gravity as a warp in the very fabric of space-time itself. Meanwhile, Quantum Mechanics examines the properties of the smallest particles in existence, discovering that particles can act like waves—and vice-versa—and that there is a limit to how precisely we can measure the momentum and position of a particle simultaneously. However, these theories are not yet mutually compatible—the uniform, smooth space-time envisioned by General Relativity breaks down at the microscopic level where Quantum Mechanics’ teeming sea of wildly interacting particles reigns.
Physicists are still seeking a “Theory of Everything,” and the Higgs boson was the next step in the search. Various theories have been crafted to bridge the gap between Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity, including String Theory, which considers a vibrating string as the fundamental particle, and Loop Quantum Gravity. Following the discovery of the Higgs, scientists had hoped that discrepancies between the observed particle and the particle predicted by the Standard Model of Particle Physics—a model which does not account for gravity and thus is incomplete—would point the way to solving the larger remaining questions of physics, such as supersymmetry, dark energy, and a “Theory of Everything.” Even though the Higgs has so far conformed to the Standard Model, there is hope that once the Large Hadron Particle collider is back online (following yet another power upgrade) it will display small deviations from standard theory to help us discover even deeper secrets of the universe.
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Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe. New York: Random House. 2000. Print.
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Image Credit: CERN via Wikimedia Commons