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Have We Discovered the God Particle?

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In recent months, the world has buzzed with the discovery of the Higgs particle. But is it really what Joe Biden would describe as a big...deal?

Yes and no. It is a milestone, but not a breakthrough. It is the culmination of an enormous international effort over many years. However, the Higgs particle was predicted to exist by a theory that has passed many precise tests, and so it would have been a shock had it turned out not to exist. Therefore, unless the Higgs is discovered to have unexpected properties, simply finding the Higgs will not unlock any secrets.

What is the Higgs particle? It is an “elementary excitation” of the “Higgs field.” (Yes, the word ‘excitation’ is used in physics, not just in a Beach Boys song!) All of space is permeated by “fields.” They are the basic stuff of nature: all the matter and forces in the world are aspects of these fields. There are many kinds of them: electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, electron fields, neutrino fields, quark fields, and so on. In our present theory, the Standard Model of particle physics, there are 18 types of fields, though there are many reasons to believe that others, as yet unknown, exist.

Fields give rise to forces. For instance, magnetic forces are due to the magnetic fields. A compass needle tells you in what direction the magnetic field in a particular place is pointing. Besides pushing on things, fields can have waves in them. For instance, light waves, radio waves, microwaves, etc. are all waves in the electromagnetic field. But one of the mysterious things that quantum mechanics tells us is that the waves in these fields can also be thought of as particles.

So the Higgs particle is the smallest amount (or “quantum”) that you can have of a wave in the Higgs field.

But there are 18 kinds of fields (and particles) in our present theory, so what’s so special about the Higgs field and the Higgs particle? First, Higgs particles were the only particles in the Standard Model that hadn’t yet been produced in the laboratory. Second, the Higgs field gives mass to many other types of particle. Other fields vary a lot in strength from place to place—magnetic fields are stronger close to a magnet than far away, for instance. The gravitational field is stronger near the sun than near the earth. But the Higgs field has an almost constant strength throughout the universe—and that strength is huge compared to that of any other known field almost anywhere in the known universe. Being immersed in this strong Higgs field is what gives most other particles their masses.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in physics is why the Higgs field has the strength it does. While it is certainly much stronger than the other fields we know about, theoretically one would expect it to be vastly stronger still—indeed, about 1017 (= 100,000,000,000,000,000) times stronger than it is. Why? Because there are certain known effects that would tend to make it that strong. So it seems that there must be some other, as yet unknown effects that almost exactly cancel the known effects to give the Higgs field the strength we actually see. That seems incredibly bizarre to theorists. For almost 40 years they have been wondering what those other effects are. Finding out is the real goal of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and truly would be a huge breakthrough with enormous theoretical payoffs.

The main contender for those “other effects” is based on an idea called “supersymmetry". If it is right, then every known particle would have a new kind of particle associated with it. For example, electrons would be associated with much more massive particles called “scalar electrons.” In effect, these new particles would cancel the effects on the Higgs of the known particles. What most particle physicists are hoping and expecting to see at the LHC is evidence for these new particles—or some other new effect that explains why the Higgs field has the strength it does.

What if no such new effect is seen? What if the only thing found at the LHC is the Higgs particle? It would be a disaster for fundamental physics. It would mean that the LHC was a flop.

One last thing: Why do journalists—not physicists—call the Higgs particle “the God particle”? It is because Leon Lederman, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, wrote a book in which he wanted to call the Higgs particle the “god-damn particle,” because it was so hard to find. Apparently his publishers thought “God particle” would sell better. So, thanks to the idiocy of publishers, we have to suffer one of the most inane pieces of media hype in history. Does the Higgs have anything to do with how the universe began? No. Is it the holy grail of physics? No. Is it the "God particle? No. But its discovery is, for those of us interested in particle physics, something to celebrate.
Originally posted at National Review Online. © 2012 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
(Image credit: Extreme Tech)

Stephen M. Barr

Written by

Stephen M. Barr is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, and a member of its Bartol Research Institute. He obtained his Ph. D. in physics from Princeton University in 1978. Princeton awarded him the Charlotte Elizabeth Proctor Fellowship "for distinguished research". He went on to do research at the University of Pennsylvania as a post-doctoral fellow. In 2007, he was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI and was elected a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology. He currently does research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology and is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

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  • Thanks, Stephen. An excellent description of that God-damn particle!

  • Kevin Aldrich

    This piece was so clear that even an English major like me could follow it.

    But the English major in me also wants to ask, "What does this have to do with a Catholic/atheist dialogue?"

    • I think we are part of an experiment.

      Hypothesis: There is nothing so uncontroversial that an atheist will not try to argue against it on a Catholic website.

      This article might falsify the hypothesis. But there's still plenty of time to wait and see.

      • 42Oolon

        We also need to keep in mind that Brandon posts an article a day, they won't all be central or controversial.

        I've noticed that some of the articles lately have been more about resolving side issues or straw men.

        If you are reading Brandon, I would suggest getting in touch with Justin Schieber on to talk about the problem of evil or the problem of non-god things. These are, in my view, the best arguments for positive atheism.

    • "What does this have to do with a Catholic/atheist dialogue?"

      Perhaps the cultural-buzz about a so-called "God particle" which potentially offers new insights into the origins of the universe.

  • D Minor

    The ivory-billed woodpecker was known as The Lord God bird, and seems to be about as elusive as the particle. :-)
    Cminor (appropriating my husband's account)

  • josh

    Nothing wrong with the article. I will add that although the Higgs was predicted according to the Standard Model, it didn't have to show up at the LHC, particularly at the mass where we found it. There are other theories that don't have a Higgs that could have been true, although in recent years they tend to be more complicated and difficult to fit to all the data. Also, the Higgs is the first possibly fundamental scalar we have found, a scalar being a particular type of particle according to a property called intrinsic spin.

    Finding the Higgs is already a definite success for the LHC, although we hope there will be others.

  • wayne stahre

    I am very suspicious of the results announced with respect to the
    discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. About six months before the
    'discovery' there was growing anxiety among the particle physics
    community that the LHC had not yet discovered the particle and was,
    "running out of places to look." A scientist made an analogy to
    looking for a particular pair of socks which might be in one of 1,000
    dresser drawers. They had searched 998 drawers so far without success.
    While it is true that you always find something in the last place you
    look for it, that place is usually not the last place it could possibly
    be. When the announcement of the discovery was finally made; the billions* of dollars spent on the LHC had not been wasted and the jobs of the hundreds of
    people working on the LHC project were secure, what was nearly lost was
    the qualification that what had been found was not exactly the higgs
    boson but a sort of mirror image of it. I pause and ask myself was it
    merely luck that the project succeeded at the last possible minute?
    Even Einstein used a fudge factor in his equations (lambda).

    * yes, with a 'B'

    • Zaoldyeck

      Except I'd argue that if we hadn't found the Higgs, it'd have been equivalent to hitting the physics lottery.

      Not finding the Higgs would arguably be far more an interesting development to the world of physics than any confirmation ever will. Why? Because physics grows most when predictions we make fail to be confirmed. Failed predictions mean "we were wrong", and force us to examine things more deeply. "We were wrong" is a lot, LOT more interesting to examine than "we were right, again".

      Consider Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation. Now, it's "mostly right", in that it makes excellent predictions for most of our planets. But it fails to account for the precession of the perihelion of mercury's orbit. A minor detail, but a consistently wrong prediction none the less.

      Consider the Luminiferous Eather. Michelson and Morley's experiment *should* have been able to see a different in the speed of light. If physics worked as we had predicted, we expected to see difference depending upon the relative position of the earth.

      We didn't. Instead we struggled for a few years to rework our mathematics under a new framework, Relativity. It's important to note that while the Luminiferous Eather may have been wrong, stunningly so, mathematics developed along with the theory is fully correct. We don't call it the "minkowski metric" or "lorentz transforms" for no reason. They published before Einstein ever published Special Relativity.

      Being wrong, having strong, robust predictions come back in our face as being stunningly wrong mandates we develop entirely new sets of underlying principles and premises.

      Confirming the Higgs tells us we're right, and sadly, little else. Proving the Higgs wrong would have told us we're wrong, and begin a quest for entirely new physics to explain the data we have.

      • wayne stahre
        • Zaoldyeck

          Pardon? Yes, we have found the Higgs. (Or "higgs-like particle") and we hope it is the standard model higgs.

          That's because the Higgs boson is the last particle yet to be discovered under the "standard model of particle physics". We expect to find it. We would be shocked if we're wrong... (or as Nima Ankari-Hamed put it, he would commit suicide if the Higgs turns out to be a techni dilaton.)

          When we are shocked we have to create new and more accurate physics. Being right is cool, but ultimately, always more boring.

          We expected to find the Higgs just like we expected to find the top quark back when the Tevatron discovered it in 1996.

          If we had been wrong, it would have required quite a lot of reworking of physics. We weren't wrong, and so physics continued with its nice standard model.

          Now that we have the Higgs, physics desperately is in need for some anomalous data. The LHC however does give us access to much higher energy scales than the Tevatron, so it's certainly possible for us to get some in the near future.

          (I say "much higher" energy scales, but really, it's only 7TeV per beam, as opposed to 1 with the Tevatron. So *almost* an order of magnitude.)

      • wayne stahre

        When you begin your defense with, "...or a Higgs Boson like particle," you have made my point. The Higgs Boson particle has NOT been discovered. So, either the search goes on, is abandoned, or the definition of what the Higgs Boson is must be revised. As for Newton, he was mostly wrong. Gravity is not a property of matter. Matter warps space-time and that is what accounts for planetary motion. It might seem like a minor point, but lack of precision causes problems; like saying that the Higgs Boson particle has been discovered when one should have said that a Higgs Boson like particle has been discovered.

        • Zaoldyeck

          "When you begin your defense with, "...or a Higgs Boson like particle,"
          you have made my point. The Higgs Boson particle has NOT been

          It likely has, but we simply need longer for the statistics to give us more confidence. We know we have a) Detected a particle, and b) Know the particle behaves similar to how we expect a Higgs to behave.

          Now, you're right, it could turn out not to be the Higgs, but so far, it looks like it is.

          Newton's model or theoretical underpinnings (or lack thereoff) might have been wrong, but his PREDICTIONS were, by and large, accurate. Sure they couldn't predict things like the precession of Mercury's orbit, or would never even begin to predict gravitational lensing... but that's not the majority of predictions about mechanics that our species makes. Newton's laws are generally 'right enough'.

          It's when physics finds those areas of "wrong", like Newton's failure to explain the precession of Mercury's orbit, or when Michelson and Morley failed to discover a deviation in the speed of light (consistent with Maxwell's equations but not the Aether) which mandated physics grow, adapt, and change far more than with models we find to be correct.

          I'm a big fan of us finding the Higgs, but I fully realize that when we're wrong, it's always more interesting.

  • 1weeman

    I am going to stick with Quantumanity for now but I don't think we will ever be able to understand the causation that created us.

  • Joshus

    You People Are Driving Me Insane.