Finding God, the particle: A prelude to discoveries more shocking and profound
Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 01:07
There is, we believe, a wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter. It’s as if something, or someone, wants to prevent us from attaining the ultimate knowledge. The invisible barrier that keeps us from knowing the truth is called the Higgs field. Its icy tentacles reach into every corner of the universe, and its scientific and philosophical implications raise large goose bumps on the skin of a physicist. The Higgs field works its black magic through - what else? - a particle. The particle goes by the name of the Higgs boson. ... The boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle.
Leon Lederman, 1993, “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?”
After almost five decades of sleuthing, physicists now have pinned the God Particle in their “Stuff That Makes the Universe” scrapbook.
The Higgs is an invisible field that fills the universe and gives elementary particles their size and mass. Imagine a vat of molasses, with the universe as the vat and the Higgs field as the molasses. Finding the Higgs boson is a quantum leap for science - the equivalent of a moonshot.
Even though the long-awaited bulletin came from Geneva, home of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the discovery of the Higgs carries a strong Chicago imprint. The now-shuttered Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab in west suburban Batavia made breakthrough progress in subatomic particle research for years. Many scientists at Fermi collaborate on work at the LHC. And Leon Lederman, who provided the particle’s deified nickname, is Fermilab’s former director.
So, aside from some Nobel Prize action for Peter Higgs, who first published his theory in 1964, what does this mean to the rest of us on planet Earth? Do physicists now know everything there is to know about the universe - the Big Bang and all that?
Not quite. With the Higgs, scientists now have assembled - drum roll, please - 5 percent of the puzzle that is the universe and how it works. That’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation from California Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.
Physicists can now close the chapter on the everyday universe - the stuff we can see, touch and feel, Carroll told us. But there’s still the matter of dark matter, dark energy and all sorts of other strange invisible stuff that fills the universe.
So one hunt concludes ... and many more continue.
The discovery of the Higgs “could lead to the discovery of unseen dimensions, parallel universes and possibly the ‘strings’ in string theory,” Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City University of New York, wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “In other words, the discovery of the Higgs is but the first step toward a much grander Theory of Everything.”
Nothing like particle physics to make you feel dense, not to mention insignificant.
So why pay attention? We agree with novelist D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in a 1929 book of poems: “I like relativity and quantum theories because I don’t understand them, and they make me feel as if space shifted about like a swan that can’t settle, refusing to sit still and be measured; and as if the atom were an impulsive thing always changing its mind.”
The universe, a swan that can’t settle, is a little less inscrutable now. But its mysteries remain deep and daunting. Science chips away.
The most thrilling part of last week’s discovery? A reminder that secrets still to be discovered are likely to be much more shocking and profound than anything we have learned so far.
(c)2012 Chicago Tribune