HIMALAYAN NEWS SERVICE
On July 4, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced the discovery of a new fundamental particle of nature, the Higgs Boson, more popularly known as the ‘God particle’.
Hours after this news made headlines, I received an email from my father, who wanted to know why this was so important, and how it would affect the lives of common people. I was well into writing a reply when I realised that most people, in Nepal as well as elsewhere, would have the same question, and the Internet was bound to be confusing and incomplete. Yet, this is too great an event to go unappreciated — the Higgs Boson has been predicted, understood, and sought for the past 50 years, and its discovery completes a glorious chapter in the history of mankind, and perhaps starts a new one.
So, I stopped writing that email, and started writing this article instead.
The Higgs is part of the answer to the most fundamental question — what is this world made of? In school, we learn that everything is made up of atoms, which consists of electrons orbiting a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, held together by electromagnetic forces. This description, however, is far from complete. Today, it is known that protons and neutrons are made up of more fundamental particles called quarks, and the electron is part of an extended family of fundamental particles called leptons. In addition to the electromagnetic force that holds atoms together and the gravitational force that makes the Earth go around the Sun, there are two additional fundamental forces in nature — the strong force, which binds the atomic nucleus together, and the weak force, which causes nuclear decays. Moreover, these forces themselves are transmitted by more fundamental particles — photon, gluons, and W and Z bosons.
All these particles and forces (except gravity) were elegantly explained in a formalism called quantum field theory, but its laws required that all the particles be mass less. The Higgs was the final piece that fixed this problem. In the 1960s, it was postulated that a Higgs field — a field that permeates space and is nonvanishing in vacuum — interacting with these particles could give them mass. The resulting theory, consisting of a Higgs Boson in addition to all the other known particles, called the Standard Model of particle physics, is so elegant and successful at explaining all observations, agreeing with hundreds of different experiments to better than one per cent accuracy, that it has become the crowning achievement of particle physics. In popular literature, the Higgs gained fame as the God particle — a particle so far undiscovered, yet one without which the entire theory would fall apart.
However, decades of searches at the world’s most powerful colliders failed to find the Higgs, and its discovery became one of the main purposes of constructing the world’s most powerful collider, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in the 1990s. The machine was a superhuman technological marvel by itself — an underground collider beneath the French-Swiss border, 27 km in circumference (about the same size as the Ring Road), with millions of detectors, moveable parts controlled to within the width of a human hair.
It took over 10 years for more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from over a hundred countries to build. But after painstakingly analysing billions of collisions at energies never reached before on Earth, the LHC finally found convincing evidence of the existence of the Higgs.
For physicists, this discovery marks the end of an era — it completes the Standard Model, and the Higgs might be the last particle ever discovered. Yet it also ushers in a new one, because, if the current theoretical approach is correct — and this discovery suggests it is — the Higgs is our window into more fundamental physics, and may lead, in a few more years, to the discovery of things as profound as extra dimensions of space and the identity of the mysterious dark matter that pervades the universe.
And so the physics community has every reason to rejoice. But what has this discovery of fundamental physics done for the collective ‘us’? How does the common man, and humanity as a whole, benefit?
A common man’s life is dictated by politics, economics, and technology, so these might seem to be the things that influence mankind as a whole. Yet, when Time magazine produced a list of the most influential people of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence and inspired non-violence throughout the world, and Franklin Roosevelt, one of the greatest US presidents who led the country during the Great Depression, were only runners-up on the list, and the individual honoured as the Person of the Century was a man of theoretical physics — Albert Einstein. A man who personified the greatness that the human mind was capable of, who saw inherent beauty in the universe, a man who inspired, was deemed to be more important to humanity than any other person in the world.
And herein lies the true value of fundamental physics. Our experience with physics tends to align it with engineering and seek its value in the invention of new gadgets and technologies. Such results, although frequently achieved, cannot be predicted at the outset and can take decades to materialise : central ideas from theoretical physics eventually made possible global positioning systems and magnetic resonance imaging; the internet began at CERN.
Yet this is only the side story. Physics, in its purest form, is the quest, not for invention, but for understanding; its core purpose is a systematic, logical, and mathematical search for the deepest truth and meaning, of the nature of existence, of our origin and place in this universe. This understanding begets knowledge, inspiration, faith, and strength; these, in turn, must spur other progress.
This is what the discovery of Higgs has given us; it is not just a triumph of physics, but of the best in humanity. The youth that are awed by the greatness of this discovery are precisely the ones who will persevere with math and science and go on to become inventors, engineers, and doctors tomorrow, and carry our societies forward. What we have seen is a shining confirmation of the powers of the human mind to comprehend reality long after our direct senses have deserted us. In a world where national divisions and tensions are becoming more prominent, we have witnessed an international scientific collaboration of a magnitude perhaps never seen before: one that physically crisscrossed international borders, involved scientists from hundreds of co-untries working together towa-rds a common goal, and inched forward even as the financial world crumbled around it.
At a time when lives are becoming increasingly materialistic and devoid of meaning, this was a magnificent reminder that greater things are possible in life. For a world that appears increasingly malicious and unfair, we were given a dazzling confirmation that it is, at its core, profoundly beautiful and harmonious, that this beauty is ours to enjoy in all its glory, that we as a species, despite all our shortcomings, are capable of comprehending it.
And if all this means nothing to us, if our hearts do not beat with pride, awe, and inspiration at this magnificent confirmation of human ability, spirit, and greatness, and aspire to greater things, then it is not physics that is at fault; we must pause and look into ourselves, for that fault lies within us.
(Shakya is a theoretical particle physicist at the Cornell University )