Believing in the God particle
It has been dubbed the ‘God Particle’ by some and nonexistent by others. There are literally thousands of scientists from across the globe all working towards the same goal: finding the Higgs Boson particle. Scientists from the Australian Research Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale (CoEPP) are getting excited because they feel we are closer than ever to its discovery.
Supposing we find the Higgs? The particle’s discovery will answer a lot of questions and bring us another step closer to a grand unified theory, or, a ‘theory of everything’. But in particular it will explain how the fundamental building blocks of nature acquire mass.
Einstein explained how mass and energy were interchangeable though his famous equation E=mc2 (the basis of which was thrown into doubt last week) and we have since found out that there are fundamental particles making up our universe, and the explanation for how this all works is called the Standard Model. But there is something missing. Mass.
The Standard Model explains a lot of things… except that. And in order for the Standard Model to be truly cohesive, it needs to. Because while some of us insist that the only way to acquire mass is by downing a few too many chockie bikkies, there is the question of how the sub-atomic particles that make up the chocolate biscuit acquired their own mass in the first place.
Through different experiments we have found what gives the fundamental particles force, the glue that holds these together to form the biscuit but not what gives them mass. It’s like having a kilo of flour without being able to explain how the flour’s mass got to be a kilo in the first place. An interesting conundrum.
Enter Peter Higgs. Higgs who, along with other physicists, independently thought of the Higgs mechanism. And I, not being a scientist, shall try to explain it to you with more food analogies.
Imagine we are surrounded by a field, and this field is not just out in the far reaches of the cosmos, it permeates us and everything around us. Now imagine that some of us can walk through this field just fine, like it wasn’t even there, but for some of us (the fundamental-particle-us), it would be like wading through a swimming pool of treacle, each step adhering more and more of the treacle onto our bodies until we are saturated with the stuff.
This treacle is the Higgs field and the Higgs particle is the quantum, or smallest amount of treacle that is able to interact. We are looking for an infinitesimally small amount of treacle.
Simple? Yes! …and no. The pure simplicity of this answer does not make up for the fact that while we have been able to theoretically provide a model that solves the riddle of the mass, we are still yet to find through experiment, the existence of this field, and its corresponding particle. And we really want to because it might well give us an answer to the origins of the universe.
So, we test the theory by experiment, and the way we test things in the world of particle physics is by bashing things together. Very little things; at very high speeds. We then sift through the wreckage (and there is a lot of wreckage) with a fine-toothed comb to see what transpired.
So, back to the actual research of what we are trying to do and how.
If we want to find a Higgs particle, we make protons travel blindingly fast, with an incredible amount of energy and in opposite directions. We line up these two opposing beams until they collide. The protons can then break up in to their constituent parts, we then see what these parts are and what they break down into.
We can pump more energy into the protons and then do it again. Suppose the protons travel with enough energy that they create Higgs particles, the particles themselves would last an infinitesimal amount of time, but then they would break down into a number of different particle pairs. So that’s what the global particle physics community is doing, methodically bashing protons together, surveying the wreckage, and doing this over and over again.
And they are oh-so-close to finding the holy grail. And if they do find it, what then? Textbooks will be re-written, parties will be had, and when everyone finally recovers from their Higgs hangover, the search for the answer to the question of how gravity fits in to all this will begin in earnest. Back to the drawing board.
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