The Higgs boson by Mayank Chhaya
A preternaturally shy subatomic particle which reveals itself by mostly not revealing itself has probably been found.
The Higgs boson, which seems to be in an eternal state of ephemerality, was caught in its ever so short-lived transition in what is described as the greatest hunt in modern science.
CERN, the European particle physics establishment that is home to the world’s largest hadron collider, announced this morning that there is 5 sigma evidence that the Higgs boson has been discovered. Sigma is the scale used by particle physicists to rate the quality of evidence where one is nothing much to think about and five is regarded as actual discovery.
Considering that the particle, whose existence was first proposed 48 years ago by Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University, is so intrinsically unstable that it turns into other particles within the tiniest fraction of a second, the discovery is viewed as profound. The reason why the Higgs boson is regarded as so fundamental to our understanding of everything is because it is said to be the reason why the universe managed to glue itself together immediately after the Big Bang some 13.75 billion years ago.
Imagine a scene in the immediate aftermath of an unimaginable explosion when trillions and trillions of particles, without any mass, are jostling about at the speed of light. Without there being anything to slow them down and create conditions that they could coalesce into something material, there would not have been a universe. Physicists believe that one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang a force field came into being and started slowing down all the primordial frenzy of particles aimlessly charging around. That slowing down and resultant coalescence are at the heart of our existence. And the particle which does that is the Higgs boson.
Not finding it until now has been one of the greatest challenges of experimental particle physics. Two teams of scientists known as CMS and Atlas smashed protons over 1000 trillion times in order to find the evidence. Although in keeping with the painful circumspection of any great scientific discovery CERN has not yet called it a full-fledged discovery, there is enough to suggest that they have one enormous breakthrough.
What I find most fascinating is that the only particles that are not affected by this force field or primordial glue or molasses or simply breathtakingly inventive fantasy is photons which constitute light. Light is not affected by this force field. From our understanding of the universe so far light is unstoppable and unsurpassable except when it encounters black holes. I can explain why it happens but it is best to quote an explanation that I found on Fermilab’s website in answer to a similar question.
Heather of Fermilab explains: “Basically gravity is a deformation of space-time. General relativity allows you to calculate how space-time is deformed for a given set of gravitating masses. In flat space-time, objects that have no forces acting on them just travel in straight lines. If space-time is curved (by the presence of some masses) then the "straight lines" are bent: objects with no forces acting on them (treating gravity now not as a force but as the curvature of space-time) travel along curved paths, which are specified by the "shape" of space-time in that region (which is in turn calculable from general relativity). This is why photons, or any particle regardless of its mass, will curve around large bodies.
In black holes, the curvature of space-time is so severe that, at the horizon of the black hole, the path that an object with no forces acting on it takes is bent all the way around in a circle! Thus if you have some light travelling by a black hole right at the black hole's horizon, it will get deflected so far that it will just orbit the black hole and never escape. If light travels closer than the horizon of the black hole, it will just go in and never come out.”
Coming back to the Higgs boson, it would be a tempting mistake to declare that we have cracked it all with its discovery. However, if history is any guide there are no final destinations in this endless journey of understanding the universe. It is up to you and your intellectual capacity at which point you decide that you have had enough comprehension of that relentless mystery. Physicist Steven Weinberg probably said it best when he said, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”