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A modern scientist, an ancient question

December 21, 2011 21:13 IST

Vivek Sharma heads one of the teams searching for the Higgs boson. George Joseph reports.

The 'Song of Creation' in the Rig Veda says the world was void and formless in the beginning and it was utter chaos. When a young Vivek Sharma learned these verses from his mother, a Sanskrit scholar, it moved him profoundly.

"The song was a record of what the sages saw and thought thousands of years ago. They were thinking of the origin of the world and from where the mass came to the world. It moved me and drove me to pursue answers for the ancient question," said Sharma, professor of physics, University of California, San Diego.

The Bihar-born Indian Institute of Technology alumnus is the head of the Compact Muon Solenoid team that searches for the Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson is a hypothetical subatomic particle, considered to be the cause for creating mass. It is named for the University of Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs, who was one of six physicists, who suggested that a sort of cosmic molasses pervading space is what gives particles their heft, and the cosmic molasses would have its own quantum particle.

"With today's technology I am answering the curiosity posed by my ancestors thousands of years ago," the scientist told India Abroad from Geneva, where CERN — the acronym derived from French for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research — laboratory is based. He had spent five years at CERN in the early 1990s, and discovered two new subatomic particles.

Two teams, the CMS and Atlas, with 3,000 scientists are looking for the Higgs boson. Both teams have almost reached at hints that it exists. The two rival teams, using two different mammoth particle detectors like the Large Hadron Collider, have recorded similar results. By next year they will have enough data to say if the elusive particle exists.

Sharma said, "Discovery of the Higgs boson is a very important and a necessary clue to our understanding of the sub-atomic world and why the universe exists," he said.

The Higgs boson is often called the 'god particle,' but Sharma said, "God is some thing very private and a matter of each individual's belief. I do experimental physics, not god."

He said even if the Higgs boson was found, the world would not get anything from the research immediately. "But the advanced technologies we have developed to achieve this will percolate soon into public use," he added. "An example is the World Wide Web, which was created at CERN for physicists to exchange data seamlessly... we gave this away to the world without cost and it has led to a complete transformation of how we now communicate."

Sharma's family is pleased about his project. He said, "My seven-year-old daughter (Meera) is very excited by what I do (smashing particles at high energies), as is my wife, a technology leader in cellular phones (Motorola). My mother thinks I have finally done something useful."
George Joseph in New York