In a startling announcement made yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) claimed that there was a very high likelihood that two separate teams of physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had in less than two years of searching discovered a new subatomic particle which may – or may not – be the “long-sought Higgs boson”.
The news was trumpeted – and widely misinterpreted by the capitalist press – as the discovery of the “God Particle”, as the Higgs Boson is known by those who would rather turn a major scientific discovery into a pop-culture soundbite than deal with hard science. In fact, the scientists at CERN went out of their way to make absolutely clear the fact that though these findings are compelling, they are preliminary; and they could be proved wrong or actually point in the direction of an entirely new type of matter unpredicted by the Standard Model of physics.
Of course, that didn’t stop the bourgeois press from misinterpreting even CERN’s carefully worded announcement, particularly in the science education desert of the United States. “Higgs Boson ‘Discovered’, Existence Of Mass In Universe Explained” said Forbes; “Physics world celebrates Higgs boson discovery” was CBS’ headline; “Higgs Boson Finding Excites Fermilab Scientists” quoth the Voice of America.
And of course, they had to put the ridiculous “God Particle” description out there as often as possible: “God particle: Physicists celebrate Higgs boson ‘triumph'” barked The Los Angeles Times; “Higgs Boson Discovery: Scientists React With Joy At Finding The God Particle” chipped in the Huffington Post.
And don’t even ask what the poorly educated American hipster in the street had to say when asked what the Higgs Boson was. Oh crap! Someone asked! Now why’d you have to go and do that for?
YouTube: “What’s a Higgs Boson?” from Motherboard TV via Slate
As to what English physicist Peter Higgs (who is credited with first postulating the existence of the “Higgs Boson”) thinks of the name “God Particle”:
“I really, really don’t like it. It sends out all the wrong messages. It overstates the case. It makes us look arrogant. It’s rubbish.” He then added: “If you walked down the corridor here [at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester], poked your head into people’s offices and asked that question, you would likely be struck by flying books.” [Source: ” Anything but the God particle “; the Guardian (London), by Ian Sample, 29 May, 2009]
So, how did the name “God Particle” come into existence anyway? Physicist Leon M. Lederman, the man who wrote the book entitled “The God Particle” has this explanation:
“[I] gave the Higgs Boson the nickname ‘The God Particle’ because the particle is ‘so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive … the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.’ ” [Source: ” The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? “; Wikipedia]
Just what is the “Higgs Boson” and why has the world scientific community spent so much money and effort to find it? This subject is difficult to tackle accurately, especially for a non-physicist; but with the help of the CERN website and a welter of Wikipedia articles on various related subjects, we’ll take a stab at it.
The “Higgs Boson” is an elementary particle believed to be responsible for imparting the property of “mass” to all nuclear particles just a fraction of a second after the “Big Bang” occurred. It is believed that at the time of the Big Bang the basic physical property of “mass” did not exist. Higgs proposed the method by which mass was imparted to the raw materials of the universe – elementary particles produced at the time of the Big Bang; this process is now called the “Higgs mechanism”.
Higgs’ theory postulated that an elementary particle – now known as the “Higgs Boson” – was responsible for imparting mass to all elementary particles. The problem was, no one (until now, perhaps) had ever observed this theoretically necessary particle in any experiment. Over the past 50 years or so larger and more powerful particle accelerators were designed and built to smash atoms together in order to break them down into their most elementary constituents – but in spite of many discoveries having been made with these instruments the Higgs Boson was never observed. The huge (3.9 mile in circumference, 1 trillion electron volt – now closed) particle accelerator at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois was never able to confirm the existence of this crucial piece of evidence for what is called the “Standard Model” of physics, (which is supposed to explain how all matter came into existence and how the universe “works” at an atomic and subatomic level.) The USA proposed building the world’s largest accelerator in Texas in the 1980s (the 54.1 mile 20 trillion electron volt “Superconducting Supercollider” or “SSC”) in order in part to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson; but the project was killed off by ignorant US politicians who believed that spending hundreds of billions of dollars on “big science” projects like the SSC to discover key insights into the nature of the universe was “a waste of taxpayer money”! So, the responsibility and the honor of building the world’s largest particle accelerator was taken over by the Europeans, who funded and built the (17 mile 14 trillion electron volt) Large Hadron Collider instead. This amazing, complex machine, which began operation only 4 years ago had some very serious problems at its initial startup – which delayed it going fully “online” for almost 2 years. As is obvious from yesterday’s announcement it has already completely justified the expense of its creation. The discovery of the Higgs Boson, if confirmed, will be one of the great discoveries in the history of science. And, if it turns out that the findings of the teams at CERN are, in fact, not the Higgs Boson but of some other elementary particle not predicted by the Standard Model of physics – then that would be even more amazing.
In the CERN press release of yesterday, July 4, 2012, the new data was carefully described in terms far more cautious than those used by much of the US capitalist press:
” ‘The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma [highly accurate – IWP] signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,’ said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. ‘The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.’
“ ‘It’s hard not to get excited by these results,’ said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. ‘ We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data.’
“The results presented today are labelled preliminary. They are based on data collected in 2011 and 2012, with the 2012 data still under analysis. Publication of the analyses shown today is expected around the end of July. A more complete picture of today’s observations will emerge later this year after the LHC provides the experiments with more data.
“The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the particle and its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties as expected for the long-sought Higgs boson, the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic? The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and every visible thing in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between them. All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.”
[Source: “ CERN experiments observe particle consistent with long-sought Higgs boson “; CERN press office, 4 July 2012]
So the reality is that although many physicists do believe that they have, in fact, discovered the elusive “Higgs Boson”, much work remains to be done in order to confirm the findings. We should know for sure one way or the other as soon as the end of this year.
Additional sources: Wikipedia: “Large Hadron Collider”; “Fermilab”; “Higgs Boson”; others. Newspapers: “The Guardian” (London);