Last Wednesday was a day I celebrated, if not with champagne at least with sparkling cider. On that day, the Large Hadron Collider, that huge, new atom smasher in Switzerland, was fired up for the first time. I celebrated alone, as I expected. I know it’s a dork thing. The news would not have made the front page even before Sarah Palin.
I have been waiting years for this. President Reagan wanted to build an even larger collider ahead of the Europeans, near Dallas, but Americans were tired of spending on space, and Congress canceled the project after a measly couple of billion, one billion to dig the ditch for it and one billion to fill it back in.
A hadron is an atomic particle made up of quarks, like the protons and neutrons that Mr. Rank first taught us about in eighth grade science. (Later, Mr. McClure mentioned them when he talked endlessly about one atom “boring” an electron from another. It was weeks before I realized he was saying “borrowing,” and suddenly chemistry made sense.)
The new collider should easily find the Higgs boson. A boson is a messenger particle that transmits energy, such as the photon that transmits light and the graviton that transmits gravity. So, what energy does the Higgs boson transmit?
The current Big Bang theory says that as the universe cooled immediately after the bang, the temperature did not drop down along a smooth curve, but a curve with a little depression in it. Some energy got caught in that depression and is still frozen there throughout all of space. Empty space is not empty after all. This hidden, trapped energy, called a Higgs field, grabs onto passing matter, resisting its acceleration, thereby giving it mass, or what we experience as weight. Jump up from a chair and it’s the Higgs field holding you back. The temperatures generated in the new collider should be higher than that depression, knocking out the energy as a particle, the Higgs boson (I like saying “boson”).
What a beautiful theory, almost religious in explaining how the universe is constructed. Without this seemingly insignificant little depression in the cooling curve the universe would be entirely different. Until recently, this basic feature was not even suspected, and mass was just accepted as an unquestioned property of matter.
But it is still only a theory. No one has actually seen a Higgs boson. All we have now are the calculations that seem to fit. And, if none are produced, that, too, would be interesting because it would generate a whole new line of thinking.
Actual data won’t be generated for another month and will take some time to analyze. I’m rooting for the Higgs boson, so if it’s found, I’ll celebrate again, maybe with real champagne. Stay tuned.