Column : What the God Particle means to you

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Updated: Jul 6 2012, 06:42am hrs
Apart from its theoretical importance, the search for the Higgs has given birth to new technologies like the World Wide Web

With all the media coverage, social network trending and general excitement about CERNs discovery of what could be the Higgs boson, some people must surely be asking what the big deal is, why the Higgs is so important, and how it affects their lives, if at all In a world where discoveries and inventions gain mass appeal only if they have practical significance, the last of those questions is perhaps the most important for the general population that does not comprise physicists.

But, as with any future-predicting answer, the best place to start is in the past, and in the very nature of the particle being discussed. It all starts with the prevailing model of the universe that physicists agree is the closest approximation they have of whats really going on: the Standard Model. Basically, its a model of the universe that uses the fewest possible particles and forces to create the universe as we know it today. It describes 12 fundamental particles and 3 fundamental forces (the fourth fundamental force, gravity, hasnt yet fit into the model, but thats a story for another time).

Now, it is known that the three fundamental forces in the Standard Model result from an exchange of force carrier particles called bosons (named after Bengali physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, whose pioneering work in the 1920s laid the basis for how particle Physics is studied today). So far, in keeping with the theory, scientists have found 4 bosons responsible for the 3 fundamental forces. But the problems crept in because, for the model to work, they assumed the presence of a fifth boson: the Higgs boson.

Named after Peter Higgs, who was working on how to explain the origin of mass of elementary particles, the Higgs boson is supposed to be the particle behind that phenomenon. But why is the mass of particles so important Because it was mass that allowed the universe as we know it to exist. When the Big Bang happened, all kinds of particles were shooting around at the speed of light, not stopping for anything. If this had continued, then none of them would have slowed down enough to slowly coalesce into the galaxies, stars and planets we have now. What Higgs postulated and other physicists ran with, was that these particles flowed through what is known as a Higgs field, an invisible energy field that interacts with most particles, slowing them down and allowing them to get heavier. Its like walking through a field of snow; as you walk, snow clings to your clothes, slowing you and weighing you down. It was this slowing down that allowed for the creation of the observable universe. The Higgs boson is the signature of this field. In short, no Higgs means no mass, which means no us. Hence the name God Particle.

The problem was that the Higgs particle is so small and so fleeting that it is (and is likely to remain for quite some time) impossible to directly see it. All scientists could hope for was to detect traces of its existence and passage. Thats what theyve been doing at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN: smashing together particles at such speeds and such forces that the impact resembles the Big Bang, and then measuring everything they possibly can to find a phenomenon that matches the criteria the Higgs should obey. CERNs announcement about the new particle that they have found, thus, isnt confirmation of the Higgs yet. It just means that they have found a particle where the Higgs is supposed to be, behaving in the way the Higgs is in theory supposed to. But it could still turn out to be a completely new particle, and thats where things get interesting, and where we can finally approach the what now question.

If the new particle is confirmed to be the Higgs (something that will take months, if not years, of work still), then this goes a long way in confirming the Standard Model, which is a great thing considering the absence of the Higgs would have destroyed the model and most of the theories we have and taken Physics back by more than 50 years. More than that, studying the Higgs could reveal an insight into how gravity can be inducted into the Standard Model, which would be a great victory for Physicsafter all, reconciling gravity and the other forces was something even Einstein sought to, but could not, do. Further, if the particle is confirmed to not be the Higgs, but something entirely new, then not only does the search for the Higgs go on, but physicists have new particles to play with, which could result in greater understanding of dark energy and dark matter, two key areas woefully unexplained by the Standard Model. Finding this particle, thus, is a win-win.

But what does that mean in practical terms To be honest, nothing. Everyday life is not going to change regardless of what the new particle turns out to be. But, it must be said, the quest to find this particle has resulted in several new technologies that do have a bearing on our lives. Take the example of the World Wide Web, which was developed at CERN to make it easier for scientists to share information among each other. In addition, the vast computing power needed to analyse the data coming out of the collisions gave birth to cloud computing, which has made its way to the commercial world only recently. Advances in proton therapy, one of the techniques used to fight cancer, have their birth at CERN, as well. The God Particle may not mean anything practically, but the search for it has had, and will have, great effects on the technology we use.