The discovery of Higgs Boson, after years of painstaking research is one of humanity’s greatest breakthroughs in understanding the Universe. The 2013 Physics Nobel was deservedly awarded to the scientists even before the discovery. Rohit Roy joins in the applause.
On the 8th of October 2013 the Nobel Physics prize was awarded to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs (the ceremony is on the 10th of December) of December). This award was the culmination of a half a century of work on the ‘Standard Model’ in physics and the answer to one of the many fundamental questions that remain. As is often the case in matters between academia and general reporting, the jump from Higgs Boson to ‘The God Particle’ was quite easily cooked up by the media. This piece does not take you through a similar path. There is no such thing as a ‘God Particle’ except in the sensationalist heads of certain journalists.
This article does, however, try to convey the importance of the research and the magnitude of such a discovery. We need not be sensationalist, but we can nonetheless admit that the discovery was sensational. In 1964, François Englert and Robert Brout, and Peter Higgs independently published two manuscripts on obtaining of mass of certain particles. What they had theorized was fundamental to the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics. The ‘Standard Model’ describes how fundamental particles and forces interact in the universe. Crucially, in the model, these particles are without mass.
However, matter clearly has mass, as we see around us, so a problem remained as to identifying how this mass comes to exist.
Yet, any attempt to forcibly put mass into the theory resulted in the ‘Standard Model’ collapsing. This led Englebert and Brout, as well as Higgs, to posit the existence of another fundamental particle. All the fundamental particles and the quanta mediating forces would gain mass through this fundamental particle, which was dubbed the Higgs Boson.
In July 2012, scientists at CERN, (European Organization for Nuclear Research), announced the discovery of a particle that seemingly displayed the characteristics consistent with the Higgs Boson. This was followed by the announcement in March 2013 that new results did indicate that the new particle was indeed a Higgs Boson, thus bringing to a relative conclusion, the research of 50 years.
So why is this discovery so important? Fundamentally, this looks at how the Big Bang could create mass out of massless energy. It is the missing piece that solves a fundamental part of the greatest puzzle of all – the Universe. The scientific impact of such a discovery is obvious. However, as was the case with several discoveries of the past, an immediate real world impact is unlikely. We simply do not have corresponding technological advancements or knowledge to reap the benefits of such a discovery yet. This however, is not to say there aren’t any – we just don’t know them yet. Furthermore, its contribution to human knowledge (and here we speak of knowledge for the sake of knowledge) is enormous.
If, however, the greatness of a discovery is partly measured by the complexity and difficulty in achieving it, then the experiment to find the Higgs Boson could not have been greater. Firstly, there was the actual experimental setup. Where usually a small laboratory or even a relatively expensive one would do, experiments in particle physics (including research on the Higgs Boson) required setting up the ‘Large Hadron Collider’ (LHC) – a 27 km circular tunnel of superconducting magnets, lying underneath the Franco-Swiss border, made as a collaborative effort between thousands of scientists, research institutes, universities and laboratories worth 7.5 billion Euros – all to find that one missing sub particle in the ‘Standard Model’.
Adding to the difficulty of the experiment is that the fact that the Higgs Boson cannot be observed directly but rather, has to be reconstructed from particle decays left in its wake. Moreover, approximately one collision per trillion produced a particle in the collider. Yet, since the project started in 1998 (the LHC was built between 1998 and 2008), thousands of scientists have produced a phenomenal amount of data from trillions of colliding protons to simulating the conditions existing at 10second after the Big Bang – all of which eventually led to the 2013 announcement.
This is why the scientific confirmation of the Higgs Boson and the Nobel Prize to Englert and Higgs are both such significant occurrences of 2013. This discovery is not just rooted to this year, but is one of the significant discoveries in all human history. And it does not end there. With true scientific humility, the scientific community have been quick to declare that this is just the beginning. It is only one part of an even greater puzzle of the Universe. There are still quite a few remaining mysteries in particle physics including the possibility of varieties of the Higgs Boson, the existence of dark matter and dark energy and questions about the weakness of the gravitational force.
The journey has only just begun. Thankfully, it began with a bang!