In a post way back on September 14, 2008 (Mr. Higgs and His Amazing Boson), I wrote of celebrating the firing up of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the largest, most expensive scientific instrument ever built. The Collider was expected (only by me) to quickly detect the elusive Higgs boson, the key particle that would support the superstring theory of everything . This particle, created in the Big Bang, is associated with the all-pervasive Higgs field in space that is the source of mass. When a proton, for example, accelerates through space, the Higgs field grabs onto it, resisting its movement that we recognize as mass. An electron, on the other hand, does not interact significantly with the field, speeds up unimpeded, and, hence, has no mass. At least, that’s how they think it works.
The Higgs field is a crucial part of the current understanding of the creation of the universe and the quantum level structure that underlies everything. It is also the only part of the theories that can be experimentally confirmed—by the detection of the predicted Higgs particle (boson).
The boson is so important and immanent (to use a theological term), it is sometimes hyped as “the God particle,” and finding it is a very, very, big deal. Hence, all the effort.
Shortly after that optimistic posting of September, 2008, the Collider malfunctioned and the repairs took a year. Then the two beams traveling in opposite directions had to be delicately adjusted to hold together and reliably collide. Then there was extensive testing to be sure the detectors and their software were working properly. Then they had to painstakingly narrow the energy range where the boson could appear. After all of that, at last, they could seriously begin looking and have already found “tantalizing hints” of the Higgs boson.
It is not easy to find, I have since learned. They don’t just slam two beams together and the boson pops out on their laps. The boson instantly disintegrates into other common particles, so it can’t be seen directly. It can only be deduced by a tiny, statistically significant increase in the amounts of those other particles found in the normal debris of the smash. The physicists have seen the increase, but it will take many more trials to build the statistical significance. A network of 80,000 computers analyzes the flood of data.
But if they do find definite evidence of the Higgs boson, the Large Hadron Collider will be well worth its $6.4 billion cost. At least to me. Proving or disproving the existence of the boson, either way, is tops on my bucket list.