The Weekly Beaker: Higgs Boson Detection an Inspiring Moment for Science, Cosmology
Published: Monday, September 3, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 3, 2012 20:09
On the anniversary of America’s independence this July, the world’s largest particle accelerator confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson. Let’s see how clearly I can explain this epic discovery despite my relatively puny understanding of the subject.
Right after the Big Bang, when the Universe was very young (within a trillionth of a second old), everything was hot, super-condensed, and undifferentiated. All forces, matter, and energy were essentially one—a white hot unity.
With time, unity tends toward complexity, and the very early Universe was a time of rapid expansion. When matter expands, it gets cooler. Temperature drops on a scale this large have the potential to unearth forces completely impotent at higher temperatures. At the extreme temperatures occurring within a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang (we’re talking a million billion trillion degrees… whatever that means), it is postulated that three of the four fundamental forces that hold our world together were united into one force called the electroweak force.
As the theory goes, it functioned within that first trillionth of a second. But as we know, the fledgling Universe grew and its temperature dropped. This allowed the Higgs field to emerge—toothless at monstrous early temperatures but operative at slightly lower ones. (An iron bar spawns a magnetic field when its temperature is hugely reduced. Similarly, a magnet loses its magnetism at 770 degrees—temperature affects forces greatly.)
The Higgs field pervades the entire Universe. Before it arose, all elementary particles were massless, indivisible and moved at the speed of light. The Higgs field slowed down some of these particles but didn’t affect others.
The unaffected particles were photons, responsible for the electromagnetic force. The particles it did affect could no longer move at light-speed because of the Higgs field’s impedance. These particles mediate the weak force. In slowing down, they experienced inertia (the resistance to an object’s state of motion), and mass is required to have inertia. Thus, the Higgs field gave birth to mass. A Higgs boson, nicknamed “the God particle” by Nobel-prize winning physicist Leon Lederman, is an impossibly quick congealing of the field into a particle. It is the embodiment of the field, destroyed as soon as it is created.
This field is responsible for breaking the unity of the electroweak force into the electromagnetic and weak forces. That weak force particles have mass is the reason electrons can orbit a nucleus, that atoms can exist and build on each other and assemble complex matter. Without this field, there would be no galaxies, stars, planets or humans to stare out at them. The detection of this particle confirms a very fundamental component of our reality.
Growing complexity is a general trend of the Universe and of our modern lives. The Universe supposedly began as a Unity and from there differentiated into matter, space and life. Some physicists think at some point the Universe will pause and then reverse its expansion, collapsing back into an infinitely small and dense point. Complexity will fold back into Unity. Wouldn’t that be poetic?
For 50 years, physics has mathematically predicted the existence of the Higgs boson. Its theorized existence was the result of a few equations that physicists scribbled out in the 1960s. This discovery reminds us of the power of raw mathematics and human thought to discern and predict truth in nature’s laws.
The $10 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) used to do the job may be the world’s most sophisticated piece of technology. Awe-inspiring breakthroughs like this one validate spending such large sums of money on science, even in an era of economic uncertainty. In a time when many are frustrated by the status quo in government, the torpor of the economy and the destruction of the environment, discoveries like this one engender the hope that we all need. It shifts the focus from what we have failed to do to what we are capable of doing. Human creativity and innovation is what has driven our cultural evolution from painting in caves, to constructing cities, to landing rovers on Mars. The Higgs Boson proves that we’ve still got it.