On July 4, 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced that evidence of the Higgs boson, also known as the "God particle", has (probably) been found. Higgs boson, is a theoretical particulate key to understanding the origins of all matter. As reported by The Telegraph, this news comes as a result of a video accidentally posted by CERN in which a spokesman for the organization tells of the discovery. Despite a prompt retraction from CERN, this has set afoot a flurry of media coverage.
But, what does any of this mean? What is the Higgs boson, anyway? I took to the Internet to find out.
In an illustrative video, Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample pours sugar on a plastic tray and rolls ping-pong balls over this concoction; in this analogy, the plastic tray represents the universe, the sugar a Higgs field (composed of Higgs bosons, represented by the individual grains of sugar), and the ping-pong balls represent subatomic particles that gain mass by way of their interaction with the Higgs field (the sugar).
Not fully convinced, I checked out Alan Boyle’s post on msnbc.com, which cites various Internet resources (including Sample’s demonstration) in order to shed light on the issue. Boyle offers an analogy in which, it turns out, “partygoers are like Higgs bosons, the just plain folks are like massless particles, and Bieber is like a massive Z boson.” Indeed.
Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair takes an even more creative approach, perhaps no less appropriate, and addresses the Higgs Boson’s “existential crisis” by means of an imagined dialogue between her and the particle. The heart of the piece lies in Weiner’s reaction to the boson’s statement of “maybe you’re the God particle”: “Fuck”.
By then somewhat dazed, I found a video titled “The Higgs Boson Explained” posted on vimeo two months ago, before the rush to explication, that features a discussion by experimental physicist Daniel Whiteson on June 16, 2011, at CERN’s cafeteria. Whiteson’s exposition is animated and it provides a more relatable perspective on a science as exquisitely inaccessible as particle physics. To summarize and paraphrase, the Higgs boson is what gives other particles mass. To find evidence for it, scientists collect massive amounts of data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), mankind’s most ambitious experiment ever, hoping to discover patterns that would suggest the presence of the famed particle. Ultimately, Whiteson often points out, what any of this means “we don’t know”. Despite the fact that evidence for the Higgs boson would confirm the Standard Model, we’d still have much to learn about the underlying structures of quantum physics.
Finding the Higgs boson would be a generation of physicists’ crowning achievement, a revolution, even a pinnacle of science; yet, I can’t say any of us can do much better than amazed speechlessness when looking for meaning in this event. It is with awe that I will (probably) gaze at humanity today, seeing it come upon a deeper understanding of our universe’s fabric. But then, I’ll just have to carry on with my day, as though the God particles in me did not matter.