With all the scientific hype coming from CERN it's time to shed some light on the Higgs Boson
For many people a heading like the one in this article may trigger questions about the sanity of the writer, or at the very least expect some sort of weird Monty Python style sketch. But it is a very serious topic of science, and considering that I did miserably at physics in school, it is a topic that is a lot more interesting than I had anticipated.Credit: CERN
On July 4th 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider of CERN announced that moths of experiments, calculations and analysis had revealed the existence of a new particle, never before observed in science. Such scientific announcements certainly are headline grabbing, especially after some bad publicity over an error in the "Faster Than Light Particle".
But what is this so called god particle, and what on earth is a Higgs Boson? These are the questions that resulted in my curiosity getting the better of me, and I want to share what I found out in, hopefully, an easy to understand way.
What Is CERN And The Large Hadron Collider?
First of all let me set some basic information up for people like me that really didn't know much about this topic. CERN is the French acronym for the "European Organization for Nuclear Research" and is based near Geneva, in the alpine state of Switzerland. Set up in 1954, it is an international organization made up of 20 member states that fund some very extensive research projects.
Between 1998 and 2008, CERN was the centre of the largest scientific building project in the world, the Large Hadron Collider, with a construction cost of $4.5 billion. To give you the scientific answer to what this fancy sounding machine is, it will suffice to say that it is the world's largest "highest energy particle accelerator". Now, I could throw more scientific terms from the world of physics at you but I'm sure that for most people this would not be the most appealing thing to read about.
However, it is important to get at least a little understanding of what this collider does. The best way to describe it is like a giant crash test centre for very very small objects. During car crash tests scientist accelerate test cars to certain speed and let them crash into objects. On impact loads of sensors on the car and the crash test dummies provide valuable feedback.
The Large Hadron Collider is essentially a 17 mile (27 km) tunnel, deep under the Swiss French border region. The idea is to take some of the smallest particles known to humans and accelerate them within this 17 mile tunnel to close to the speed of light. These particles are then eventually pointed directly at each other, just like a crash test car is pointed in the direction of a stationary object.
When two very small particles crash into each other near the speed of light, a lot of strange things happen that scientists can measure. I won't even attempt to try and explain what exactly happens at impact, but you can imagine that it has to be significant.Credit: CERN
What Is The Higgs Boson?
Also known as the "God Particle", the Higgs Boson was, until recently, only an idea or a theory named after British physicist Peter Higgs. It basically attempts to explain why the smallest building blocks of everything in the physical world actually come together and stay together. Thisi s where the non-scientific term "god particle" comes from, as it essentially tries to explain how the physical world came into being what it is today.
In order to simplify this as much as possible you need to imagine that everything in and around you is made up of simple and complex molecules. These molecules are smaller than can be visually observed, and they are made up of even smaller objects called atoms. Atoms in turn are made up of neutrons and electrons which are even smaller again. But this is not where it ends; neutrons are made up of quarks of various sizes that are infinitely small.
The question for scientists has been why and how do quarks come together to form neutrons that are then the building blocks of atoms. Higgs theorized that there was an energy field that causes quarks to slow down, have a chat and stick together for a while in a small group. The scientist went further with the idea and said that such a field would have an observable by-product called a boson. So there you have it, the Higgs boson.
Dependent on the type of particle the effect of the Higgs field is different. Quarks are most affected and therefore tend to lump into a mass, while electrons are far less affected. Photons, or particles of light, are totally unaffected by it, which is an explanation for why light particles do not decelerate over time.
Why Does All This Matter?
As I already mentioned, scientists have been trying to explain how matter, essentially everything observable around us, actually came into being in the first place. What happened after The Big Bang that caused tiny particles to group together into ever larger objects creating the Universe around us?
For a long time it has been a stumbling block of science in that it couldn't verify the theory that there is indeed a force that brings sub-neutron particles together. This may now have changed, but the scientists at CERN are being somewhat cautious about jumping to conclusions. Maybe this is simply to avoid repeating the faster than light error they made, but they will be continuing with the research.
Apparently, the Large Hadron Collider is not yet operating at full power, but it will be ramping up to such a full power test towards the end of this year. Whether or not this will help scientists in making more definite statements is to be seen, but this is certainly an exciting time for the world of science.
If things like this interest you, but you are scared by all the heavy theory then I can only recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. My wife bought it for me for Christmas a few years ago, and I had it read before New Years Eve; a fantastic layman's explanation of all the strange things around us that you wouldn't be aware of.
Image Credit: CERN