Why Finding The Higgs Boson Is Exciting Physicists
By James Donahue
When scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, recently announced their discovery
of a new subatomic particle that they believe is the long sought Higgs Boson, the news made headlines around the world. But
most reporters admitted they don’t quite understand why such a discovery is so important, or what it even means in the
world of physics.
That’s because the Higgs Boson has existed only in theory for the past 50 years. It was suggested by
physicist Peter Higgs who believed such a particle had to exist to explain why matter can have mass. Higgs was among the many
scientists delving into the world of subatomic particles who realized that everything there is active energy and fill of space,
much like the universe we see around our planet. He believed that to turn all of that energy and space into the rocks, metals
and living things that we see, feel and use, there had to be some kind of "glue" that holds matter together. Without it, we
could not exist.
About a year or two ago, while the team was struggling to get the Hadron Collider operating correctly, we
took the time to carefully study this strange new world of subatomic physics, learn why the collider was being constructed,
and gain some kind of understanding of quantum physics. Indeed, it is a world that most folks have a lot of trouble grasping.
They must be willing to consider cats that both exist and not exist within boxes, and think of parallel universes where things
might be similar yet different than the one in which we think we exist.
Another way of looking at what is going on at Geneva is to examine "particle physics." Since the days when
scientists learned how to smash atoms to make very deadly bombs, there has been a quest to explore the heart of matter which
we understand is comprised of atoms. From basic high school physics we know that an atom is a very small unit of matter. It
consists of a central nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electrons. The whole configuration reminds us of planets circling
a sun within a solar system.
A group of atoms can bind themselves together forming a molecule. And molecules appear to be the building
blocks of the objects that comprise our world, including ourselves. This is known as matter.
There is, however, a problem with this picture. When you examine things at the atomic level, there is a strange
awareness that a lot of empty space exists not only within the atoms, but around them. Thus contemporary physicists have been
scratching their heads over a question that has boggled their minds for a long time. While we understand matter, we do not
know why matter has mass. In other words, why is it that we can sit comfortably in a chair without falling through it to a
floor that should not support either us or the chair. This is because all matter contains more space than it does solid material.
Enter the new concept of particle physics. Here we dig deep within the atom to find that scientists have erected
an entirely new concept of how things are put together at an extreme molecular level. They have identified something called
the quark which is an elementary particle and thus a fundamental element in matter.
The quarks combine to form composite particles that are called hadrons. Protons and neutrons are classified
as hadrons. But the physicists have found that other hadrons called mesons (one quark and one antiquark) and baryons (three
quarks. Protons and neutrons are identified as baryons. The mesons include kaons and pions.
In quantum physics there is something called the Standard Model. Within this model there are six types of
quarks, six types of things called leptons and four things called bosons. Bosons are described as composite particles within
the Standard Model. For this article, attempting to describe them any farther, or explain what leptons are, would serve little
The people swimming around in the strange world of quantum physics dreamed up the concept of the Higgs Boson
as a way to try to explain how matter has mass. Higgs and his fellow scientists reason that something yet unseen made up the
glue that holds these particles together and turns matter into mass. And whatever that thing is, it exists throughout the
Universe. Thus they reason there has to be a "god particle" or boson that carries some kind of magnetic field, known as the
Higgs Field. As particles pass through the Higgs field, they are drawn together until the collection of particles gains mass.
By now you may have noticed a link between the composite of particles known as hadrons and the machine scientists
were working so hard to get running near the Swiss/French border. They appropriately call it the Hadron Collider because they
want to use it to smash these tiny particles together after sending them at nearly the speed of light in opposite directions
through their elaborate race track.
Why do they want to do this? There is a very scary reason that had a number of world scientists worried that
the physicists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research project, also known as CERN, may have been about
to unleash an energy capable of destroying the world.
For one thing, the team wanted to recreate the Big Bang and test this long debated theory of how the universe
According to this theory, before the Big Bank the universe was extremely small and matter existed only as
free quarks. Once the explosion occurred, there was rapid inflation, quarks combined into hadrons, the forces separated, atoms
formed as matter, and matter condensed into stars and galaxies were formed.
The CERN scientists wanted to simulate conditions that existed within a minute fraction of a second after
the Big Bang. They planned to smash hadrons and then study what happens.
The massive machine crashed the first time the team attempted to get it operating. It took another year to
make repairs and add new safeguards to prevent the same problem from developing this time. CERN engineers say they hoped to
crash protons at an injection energy of 450 billion electron volts and then ramp up the energy until the protons are driven
by 3.5 trillion electron volts of energy apiece. After this all hell was going to be let loose . . . whatever that meant.
Since they smashed particles hard enough to produce the illusive Higgs Bosom, they must finally have operated the machine
at its full potential.
Some opponents of the CERN project warned of the frightening possibility that the collider might create tiny
black holes that could eventually consume the Earth. The scientists said that while this was possible, they believe it is
highly improbable. So they were willing to conduct the experiment anyway, taking even a tiny risk just to gain knowledge.
We are still here, so if black holes were created we have yet to find out about it.
Now that billions of dollars and more than a decade of work has been spent at Geneva building the Hadron Collider,
and now that the Higgs Bosom has been determined to really exist, some writers are saying this discovery now opens the door
to new and exciting research.
These people are delving into a micro-world so tiny that even the most powerful electronic microscopes have
trouble seeing it. How much farther does that trip into the mini-realms of our universe can we go and what new secrets can
we expect to find there? One thing may be true. The universe in either direction appears to be almost interminable.