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A decade since the detection of God Particle: Why it matters

By Devangshu Datta
July 26, 2022 10:00 IST
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The Higgs filled a gap with its explanation for mass. Knowing the exact characteristics of the Higgs allows scientists to make better guesses of the structure of the universe in the first 10 microseconds after the Big Bang, says Devangshu Datta.

IMAGE: A visitor takes a phone photograph of a large back lit image of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Science Museum's 'Collider' exhibition in London, England. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
 

In July 2012, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) team at CERN, the pan-European Organisation for Nuclear Research, announced proof of the existence of the so-called Higgs boson.

This elusive particle had been theorised back in the 1960s by Peter Higgs, and several other physicists, working independently in three different teams.

If it existed, it would explain why most fundamental particles had mass.

Higgs & co suggested a mechanism, now known unoriginally as the Higgs Mechanism, where the particle worked with a field (the Brout-Englert-Higgs Field) to explain how it imparted mass.

IMAGE: Professor Peter Higgs stands in front of a photograph of the LHC at the Science Museum in London, England. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Did it exist?

The Standard Model of physics did not have answers to the "why and how" of mass. Yet, mass is an intrinsic quality -- every atom, and most particles, have mass.

Mass is constant for a given object and measures the inertia of the object. The more the mass, the more the force required to move it.

Weight is a measure of the force of gravity acting on a given mass and differs for the same object on the Earth, Moon and Jupiter.

The Higgs boson could provide an explanation if it existed and the physicists concurred on the characteristics. They could estimate a range for its size and mass.

It would have no electrical charge, no "colour" (quantum jargon for a property with nothing to do with colour as Van Gogh understood it), and no spin.

They could estimate its life (how long it would last before decaying into other particles), etc.

IMAGE: A technician stands near the equipment of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience at the Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the French village of Cessy near Geneva in Switzerland. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Given the predicted values, the particle was hard to find. It "lived" for very, very short periods.

Particles are discovered in high-energy experiments by banging them together at high velocities and analysing the data for deflections. But the Higgs' mass was outside the range of detection by existing particle accelerators.

Hence Leon Lederman (Nobel winner for discovering classes of neutrinos) called it "That Goddamned Particle", and some prissy media-person turned that into the "God Particle".

The LHC is an enormously ambitious engineering project. It consists of a 27 km ring-tunnel deep beneath the Alps on the Swiss-French border near Geneva.

It took 10 years to build and involved 10,000 scientists from hundreds of institutions.

It quadrupled the energy used and has since upped the energy quotient even more.

One of the primary purposes was to seek the Higgs. A year into operation, the LHC found a particle that fitted the theoretical predictions.

Higgs and Francois Englert (co-author of one of the other papers) were jointly awarded the Nobel for Physics in 2013. Sadly, the others were dead by then.

IMAGE: The LHC tunnel is pictured during a visit at the Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin, near Geneva. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

So, 10 years down the line, what do we know about the Higgs and how did finding it change our understanding of the universe?

Also, what does the LHC do now that the Higgs is nailed down?

The Standard Model offers the minimalist, least complex explanation of physical laws that fits much observed data.

It involves just four fundamental forces and 12 particles. Its predictions can be verified through more experiments.

The Higgs filled a gap with its explanation for mass.

Knowing the exact characteristics of the Higgs allows scientists to make better guesses of the structure of the universe in the first 10 microseconds after the Big Bang.

The LHC will continue operating of course.

It started running again on June 6 after an upgrade. It can now create beams with more density of particles, and higher energy.

In the next decade, it will generate at least 50X the current data and may clarify many grey areas.

Scientists also say given the LHC experience, they can now design a particle collider, which will be far more precise in its measurements.

This would cost a bomb, of course, and again it would have to be a multi-national, multi-institutional effort.

There are other holes in the Standard Model. It has no explanation for Dark Matter, or Dark Energy, although there's strong indirect evidence for both.

Supersymmetry also involves some elegant but unproved hypotheses, which postulate more undiscovered particles out in the wild.

The LHC and its successors could hunt those down if they exist.

A key scientific principle is that experiments can disprove hypotheses, but cannot definitively prove a theory.

Newton's Laws of Motion explained much of the available data to decimal-point accuracy. But Einstein's Theory of Relativity was even more accurate and it explained things Newton's laws did not.

More data out of the LHC and elsewhere could modify the Standard Model and update it for a more complete understanding.

Physics rarely inspires poetry except of the "There was a young lady named Bright/ Whose speed was far faster than light" variety.

The 10th anniversary of the Higgs discovery inspired Amy Catanzano to compose "Higgs Boson: The Cosmic Glyph", a beautifully crafted piece which ends, "Coupling to the mass of a thing/ the Higgs Boson is the universe letting a poem sing."

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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