Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Higgs Boson Uncloaked

My stomach keeps doing a roller-coaster plunge in anticipation of  a press conference scheduled by the European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN on July 4, 2012.  It will announce whatever progress has been made thus far in finding the elusive Higgs Boson.  "So what?" friends ask.   And true, the discovery of its existence (or non-existence) won’t erase poverty or usher in world peace.  It won’t even pay my skyrocketing summer utility bill.  But, peeling away the mysteries of the universe is worth every penny we humans can spare for such endeavors.  Isn’t that the real reason we’re here, alive on this planet, allowing the universe to experience itself through us and find answers to questions the cosmos is as clueless about as we?

As excited as I am about scientists being on the verge of a new discovery, my problem is that  I have yet to find a clear statement of what the Higgs Boson is actually supposed to be. The number of websites promising answers is nearly infinite.  But they are repetitive, tossing around the same unhelpful cliches.  So, I will pose a few questions that had at some time or another bugged me, and answer them to the best of my ability in plain English.

Question:  What exactly is the Standard Model that the Higgs-Boson is supposed to confirm?  Is it the same diagram those of us over fifty, learned in school decades ago with little electrons flying around a solid-looking core?.

Answer:    For the most part yes, even though a bunch of new particles have been identified through experiments in atom smashers.   I, my computer, and everything else in a material form are made of particles that have mass, rather than being pure energy like light.  Mass is made up of the protons, neutrons, electrons and other sub-atomic particles, which form themselves into atoms, then molecules.  Without it, only massless particles (points of energy)  would zip through space at the speed of light.  [Bytheway, if you're wondering how a particle can have zero mass, the reason is that the term "mass" as it is used by scientists means more than just having weight, which changes with gravity.  That is, you would way less on the moon than on earth, and a whole lot more on the surface of Jupiter.  "Massless" particles always travel at the speed of light and cannot be slowed down.] 

Question:  What would the universe look like without the Higgs-Boson?  

The material world, us included, would dissolve into flecks of light-like energy. I wouldn't mind being a light beam were it not for the fact that without consciousness, I wouldn't know I'm me.

Question;  Why is the Higgs-Boson called "the God particle" and what does it have to do with religion?.
Answer:  Leon Lederman's popular science book on particle physics is entitled: The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?.   Lederman  had originally titled the manuscript: "That Goddamn Particle" because it was so elusive.  An enterprising editor tweaked the title in order to make it seem more controversial and thus sell more books, making it "The God Particle."   The Higgs-Boson neither confirms nor denies the existence of God and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with theological speculation.

Question:  What if anything does the Higgs-Boson search have to do with the Big Bang Theory of the universe's origins?

I love this answer, which comes from the Fermilab website: "The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago sending massless particles and radiation energy zooming through the universe like cars at rush hour. Shortly afterward, the Higgs field appeared, as if a truck carrying molasses overturned and leaked all over the highway. Particles such as light, which went through the puddle super fast, avoided having any molasses stick to them, similar to the way hydroplaning cars skim the surface of water. Particles that went through the molasses puddle more slowly had molasses goblets cling to them, creating a drag that slowed them even more and made them more massive. How fast a particle made it through the puddle determined how much molasses clung to it, and thus how massive it became. When the universe began to cool, slow particles with mass began to bunch up like mini-traffic jams and form composite particles and then atoms."

Question:  What happens if the Higgs-Boson is not found?

Answer:  Some scientists will declare that they've learned something of equal value. Others will insist that the LHC is not powerful enough to find the particle, and that a new particle accelerator needs to be built at a cost several times over the $20 billion spent on the Hadron Collider.  .

Question;  CERN has a twenty billion dollar vested interest in announcing some kind of monumental discovery by the end of the year, regardless of what the scientists find.  So, will we non-scientists even know for sure whether the particle has been found?  

Answer: Mistakes can be both humiliating for the scientific community and costly, in terms of lost funding from diminished public support (does anybody remember the cold fusion fiasco). In order to strengthen the credibility of these experiments and their findings, two teams have been set up at the Hadron Collider, working on two different detector machines, the ATLAS and the CMS.  Their work is also "blinded," which means that they are not allowed to see the findings from the rival group and even from different sets of scientists analyzing data coming out of their own detector. This is a way to ensure that one group is not influenced by the data being produced by the other group. 

Question:  What value will the Higgs-Boson's discovery or lack thereof have for new technologies?

Answer:  No one knows.  But, past nuclear discoveries produced innovative technologies that changed our world, from computers and the Internet to nuclear bombs (I didn't say that it necessarily changed things for the better, but merely that it changed things.).   

I will add to this post as additional questions come to mind as well as corrections or clarifications  brought to my attention by blog readers.