On July 4, 2012, a discovery was announced that rocked the scientific world. It was a discovery with no known practical application and with relevance to a subject matter only a few researchers really comprehend. Yet it garnered media attention and discussion far beyond its own research field.
What makes people so interested in the discovery of the Higgs Boson?
Perhaps it has to do with the nature of mystery and the role it plays in scientific discovery. The tendency for research to require some time to catch up with theory is nothing new. Scientists in Galileo’s time were positing theories about planets, moons and the laws of space long before we had the technology to confirm their suppositions.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle gives people a reminder of the importance of curiosity in learning more about our world. Without the many scientists whose work and theories contributed to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider and the work performed with it, we as a species would know that much less about the laws of the universe we inhabit.
What is the Higgs Boson?
Higgs Boson is an elementary particle that was first theorized in 1964 by Peter Higgs and Francois Englert. Several key theories in physics have depended on its existence, most notably the Standard Model. Particle physics is hard to summarize in an easily digestible way, but the idea of the Higgs Boson’s role and its importance is that it is necessary to provide mass to other particles. Many equations and theories in particle physics fall apart without this specific element.
One of the fascinating features of theories surrounding the Higgs Boson is the suggestion that it played a role in the beginning of the universe. Or more accurately, that it was one of the first particles to possibly exist and played an important role in how the universe developed into what it is today. This accounts for the often-reverential language used to describe it, from its commonly used nickname “the god particle,” to the excited proclamations that scientists had unlocked a “secret of the universe” once the discovery was announced.
Evidence of the particle’s existence serves to confirm some of the basic building blocks of a whole field of science — one based on understanding the basic building blocks of our physical reality.
How did they find it?
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, chose to make the size-able investment required to build the technology needed for research into the tiniest components known in nature. Ironically, to properly study these microscopic particles, a massive machine was required.
The Large Hadron Collider is the largest machine in the world and has been working since 2008 to basically mash particles together at high speeds. “High speeds” in this case means close to the speed of light, one of the reasons why the machine needed for these experiments has to be massively powerful. Another reason the research is so complicated is the extreme precision required to engineer a collision between tiny particles.
Nonetheless, the CERN scientists, many of the greatest physics minds in the world, engineered billions of particle collisions and did extensive research and analysis on the results to get to the point where a particle that resembled the predicted Higgs Boson was identified. The amount of work, money, and ingenuity that went into the identification of this tiny, elusive particle is a powerful demonstration of the importance humanity places on curiosity and knowledge.
What does this mean for science?
The short answer: we don’t know yet. The discovery doesn’t come with any practical applications. Many of the most influential discoveries in science didn’t demonstrate their primary benefit until many years later, when other areas of science and technology had caught up with them. For now, arguably the most important consequence of the discovery is that it has gotten people excited about science.
People whose professions and primary passions lie elsewhere found themselves clicking articles and talking to friends about theoretical physics — no small feat for a tiny particle. The fascination with mystery and the makings of the universe that surround many discussions about the particle may very well help create future physicists.