At $7 billion, the discovery was a bargain. The money went mostly to building and staffing the world’s most complex machine, buried deep beneath the French-Swiss border at Geneva. The discovery was actually an affirmation of the idea that the visible material universe is made from a small inventory of elementary particles under the influence of a special force field.
An international posse of scientists, tracking its particular quarry for almost fifty years, announced its triumph at a special physics meeting in Australia. The shy object of all this attention is referred to as the Higgs boson or the Higgs field, named for British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.
In the 1960s many scientists came to believe that the constituents of atoms, such as protons and neutrons, had constituents themselves, referred to ever since as quarks. Higgs was one of several theoreticians who predicted that elementary particles like quarks and electrons possessed varying degrees of mass because they are subject to a universal but invisible interactive influence.
Ever pushed the plunger through a French press coffee maker? The plunger passing sluggishly down through all those coffee grounds is like a particle being endowed with “mass” (an object’s mass is usually defined as its resistance to being accelerated). And the Higgs field is analogous to the grounds.
One more bit of physics: in quantum science every known field can be manifested in the form of a particle, and the Higgs field is no different. The field usually operates unseen but, if a huge amount of energy can be squeezed into a very tiny volume of space, that energy can be converted into particles that weren’t there a moment before.
Thus it was that Higgs particles were finally produced at the Large Hadron Collider. The long delay, from prediction to verification, arose from the difficulty in mustering all that energy and knowing where and how to look for the telltale daughter particles left behind when the Higgs particle decays.
What are the social implications of this discovery? First, we can congratulate the scientists involved in the present experiment and for all those who have, over the past few decades, assembled a grand theoretical and empirical picture—usually under the bland name of the Standard Model—about the fundamental structure and dynamics of nature that should rank with Copernicus’s model of the solar system or Darwin’s all-encompassing theory of evolution through natural selection.
The appreciation of the Higgs discovery gets a bit trickier insofar as this bestower of mass is seldom mentioned in popular culture without referring to it by its nickname, “the God Particle.” It picked up that moniker years ago as a gimmick to sell more copies of a book about particle physics. Look, went the marketing, here is a particle that in its universal application is all but a godlike thing. (The book’s author, Leon Lederman, also joked that the publisher offered the title as a consolation to his first choice, “the Goddamn Particle”.)
Since it’s too late now to take back the name, the particle can serve as a reminder of the ongoing debate over the respective roles of science and religion. This debate heated up a few months ago with the publication of Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe from Nothing. Krauss argues that recent developments in physics and cosmology have made spectacular progress in explaining things that were long thought to be in the realm of religious revelation, such as the creation of the cosmos out of nothing.
With his substantial scientific credentials—he helped to lay the theoretical explanation for the now-observed accelerating expansion of the universe—and his crusading effort to draw out the intellectual ramifications of science to a variety of audiences, Krauss is essentially the Richard Dawkins of physics. One of the stated goals of Krauss’s book is to shift the discussion of the genesis of the universe from the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” to the more tractable question “How is there something rather than nothing?”
The discovery of the Higgs particle gives Krauss, and indeed everyone else, an extra way of thinking about the “something” we see all around us.
Phillip F. Schewe is the director of communications of the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland. His book about theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson will be published this winter by St. Martin’s Press.