Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Creator of the Universe


The discovery of the Higgs Boson is possibly one of the most upbeat and uplifting stories of the entire year. This was a collective human endeavour of intellect and resources, all forged across international lines to peel back the very fabric of reality itself and discover the field that gives every particle its respective quantity of mass.

The Higgs field is one story in itself, and its discovery another. The Higgs Boson is a sub-atomic particle called a Boson, that is a part of the Higgs field, which is emitted when two subatomic particles (likely protons) are smashed together in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The subatomic particles are smashed together by sending them at, or near, the speed of light, in the freezing vacuum of the LHC tube. This witnesses a reaction in the collision, that excites the Higgs Field enough to emit the Higgs Boson.

The discovery of the Higgs Field confirms the last bit of evidence needed to verify the standard model of the universe, a model which classified the most basic particles out of which all matter, e.g. nuclei, atoms, molecules, us, our food, our houses, every bit of matter in the universe, is made of.

The existence of the Higgs Field allows all matter to have mass, depending on the extent of how deeply it bends (I’m using a simplistic term here) the field. Many of you may know what a photon is. The photon is the particle that carries light. You also know what the electron is, the negatively charged particle in the atom, the movement of which through metal wires, carries electricity.

Both electrons and photons are classified as basic particles under the standard model of physics. But electrons have mass whereas the light carrier, photons’ zero mass allows it to travel at, well, the speed of light. Despite being in the same neighbourhood of volume (which is approximately, nil) the electron has some mass, whilst the photon has none. This, as I earlier said, has to do with the interaction of the electron with the Higgs Field, and the Photon’s total lack of interaction with the Field itself. This ought to demonstrate the significance of the Higgs Field. The existence of the Field, and the lack of interaction with it explain why the photon has no mass, whilst the electron, which interacts with the Higgs field, has a minute quantity of mass.

Now involved in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the act of smashing together protons and various sub-atomic particles is the story of the great and good Large Hadron Collider.

The Large Hadron Collider is an awesome piece of technology. This super-frozen miles long vacuum tunnel is actually the largest human thing ever built.

Where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) presents us with a lesson in organising society though, is how the LHC itself is a large scientific project brought together by various first world governments, the European Union top amongst them. People, worked together, decided that this was a scientific endeavour worth pursuing, and put up the requisite political, economic, human capital and scientific resources to carry it through. In the Large Hadron Collider they paid and had built, the largest particle accelerator in the world to aid scientific discovery and push the frontiers of scientific knowledge. And the LHC has done so, with the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

With the sort of funding and administrative development the Large Hadron Collider had it makes one happy to see it as a symbol of a political decision, taken by various democratically elected representative bodies to dedicate resources to advance the frontiers of science. The Large Hadron Collider and its construction were also a triumph of internationalism as many countries across the European Union and the developed world paid for its construction and upkeep, whilst scientists from across the globe worked at the CERN campus, which itself straddles the Franco-Swiss border.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson in a manner like this, with industrial scale government involvement in the funding and delivery of a major scientific breakthrough, finds an apt analogy in the Manhattan Project that delivered, the United States, the nuclear bomb. Except this time, instead of a weapon, all these government resources were sunk into the construction of a device to advance human knowledge and even teach the world something that could spur economic advancement.

The Higgs Field that has been discovered, by this endeavour of human science, politics and economy has pulled back the fabric of reality and revealed the field, without which all particles in the universe would just be beams of light particles, shooting every which way at the speed of light. We now know, or should I say, have physical proof, of why the phenomenon of mass exists.

Who knows, if we could stop a particle from interacting with the Higgs field, if we could control its interaction with the Higgs field by either stopping and re-starting it, we could possibly have travel at the speed of light within human grasp.

This, is for a better, more hopeful future; and the wonderful places it can take us.

Postscript: I remember when the Large Hadron Collider was initially about to begin operation, there were oppositions on the basis that it might create a black hole that would swallow the world whole. I kept in mind the absolute worst of the naysayers and how these losers, and I'm sorry but there is no other word to describe these macroscopic griping idiots, objected to the LHC on the basis of cost. When so much has gone wrong in between the years 2008 and 2012, the discovery of the Higgs Boson is a vindication for optimism. And as a parting gift, here is Mr Irfan Hussain's column from June 2008 that gave me much of initial information back then, on CERN's search for the Higgs Boson and the construction of the Large Hadron Collider:

A Voyage Into Inner Space

Creator of the Universe by Stephane Peray