Electrons are made up of extremely tiny particles that you cannot see with the naked eye unless you have been drinking.
— Dave Barry
The Large Hadron Collider. Image from DVICE
Coming July 4: The secrets of the Universe revealed. Maybe. Maybe not.
July 4 is the start of the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Australia and rumors are flying that the existence of Higgs boson may have been confirmed. Rumors are also flying that the Higgs boson, sometimes called the God Particle, might not be all it was cracked up to be.
Remember the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)? Back in 2008, rumors flew that when it was turned on, it would create a black hole that would suck the earth into itself. Didn’t happen. The LHC slid off the front pages in favor of more interesting stories like the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katy whats-her-name.
Deep in a hole under Switzerland, however, the voodoo continued. The LHC is, I think, the biggest project humans have ever attempted as a group science project. It’s in a tunnel about 17 miles in circumference and races streams of particles toward each other at 99.9% of the speed of light in a vacuum that contains fewer particles than in the emptiest places in the solar system. It has to be very cold to work, -456 degrees, colder than deep space, and keeping the collider that cold requires $100,000 of electricity every day. A lot of countries chipped in to build it. Cost so far about $33 billion. The idea is to get the particles to smash into each other, and the resulting debris will hopefully be smaller, undiscovered particles that in turn will confirm the most favored theory of why nature works the way it does.
Like everything I try to understand and then write about, the Higgs boson and the reasons why such a fuss is made about it, are mind-bogglingly complex. This is not territory for the non-physicist, but what the heck?
Let’s just say that it was hoped that the LHC would reveal the Higgs boson, believed to be the missing link that would prove super string theory, which holds that at the smallest level all matter is actually vibrating stings that pop in and out of parallel universes.
This is all part of an epic debate taking place in the world of physics. About 50 years ago physicists started working on a Standard Model to explain everything, including dark matter, energy, mass and how to unite quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Standard Model model relies on an effect called super symmetry which in turn relies on being able to prove that particles have partners called sparticles. Seriously. Don’t let anyone tell you physicists don’t have a sense of humor. Predictions based on the Standard Model have been confirmed true at an astonishing pace in the intervening decades, but physicists hit a brick wall when it came to finding evidence of sparticles. Is the Large Hadron Collider still too crude an instrument? Or is the current theory of everything bunk?
If the Higgs boson is observed, has the proper mass and behaves appropriately oddly, it could confirm super symmetry and super string theory. If not, physicists with other theories who have been basically shouted down by Standard Model theorists, might have a chance to home in on some of that Standard Model funding.
In either case, tune in to your favorite physics news source this Fourth of July, and raise your sparticles, I mean sparklers, to the imponderables. Happy Holiday.