“Oh, I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece
I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece
Hi-dee-ho, here I go
lookin’ for my missin’ piece”
– Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) (Child’s Book Author, Poet & Philosopher) “The Missing Piece (1976)”
We truly live in an age of science fiction.
July 4th, Our Nation’s Birthday, finally brought the long-awaited news from the overjoyed particle physics community. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had indeed found reliable evidence of the existence of the fabled “God Particle,” the Higgs boson, a critically missing, but really hard to find, piece of the Standard Model of Physics, which currently explains the universe in which we live.
“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” Rolf Heuer, CERN Director General, told international media and breathless scientists gathered near Geneva on Wednesday, July 4th. Huer said, “[t]he discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”
The US once led the world in particle physics – hell, we created the field! But, when it came time to build the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, and, thereby, to really try to answer some of the remaining imponderables of modern physics, our US Congress decided not to spend the money. Stepping into the breach, however, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research (‘Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire’) did not hesitate when the US abdicated it’s role at the head of particle physics. In one of the largest experimental science projects ever attempted by humankind, CERN, heading an international conglomerate of the best minds in physics, built a 27km (17mile) long underground pipe, a great loop underneath the Swiss-French border.
This enabled CERN to fire two beams of protons at one another at fantastic, unimaginable speeds through these 17 miles of piping, using magnets more powerful than any other, to smash these proton beams together so violently as to produce a sub-atomic disintegration of particles so dazzling that it beggars the imagination and strains credulity. In effect, CERN set about to re-create the Big Bang, the indescribably large explosion from absolutely nothing, all packed denser than words can explain, into the universe that we currently inhabit, some 13.7 Billion years ago.
Overcoming many who simply could not believe this possible –multiple lawsuits were filed in Europe and US Federal courts, seeking, unsuccessfully, to enjoin these proton smashing experiments, fearing a Black Hole would result, which, in turn, would swallow the earth – the whole thing had to be delayed for more than a year after the LHC blew up some of it’s own monster magnets and other hardware involved when run at higher speeds. Then, when high-speed proton smashing could finally resume again, the LHC could not run at full speed, but had to spend months working back up to higher and higher speeds, all the while collecting data to be studied by thousands of physicist working groups worldwide.
Then, all the data had to be crunched, and we are talking about a truly humongous amount of data. Superlatives quickly fail here.
The data has finally been crunched. Evidence of the Higgs boson has indeed been found! Making this all the sweeter, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, at Edinburgh University these days, who first dreamed up the idea that this particle must be out there, if only we could find evidence of it, more than half a century ago, is still alive at age 83, to see his theory become verifiable reality. Higgs was one of six theorists who, back in the early 1960’s, theorized that there must be a mechanism by which all the matter in the universe gained mass – without it, there would be no substance to the universe and sub-atomic particles would simply fly around doing their strange quantum tricks (like being in two places at the same time, or; only being in a particular place because you are watching it there) with nothing to hold it all together in the form in which we enjoy living.
Higgs’ idea was that, if an invisible field was responsible for giving mass to matter in the universe, then it must be made up of particles. Those particles, after over a half century of searching, have now apparently been found. Mr. Higgs should get his good suits cleaned and pressed – Stockholm likely will soon be calling!
It’s all beginning now. Much more refinement is required for this data, but, as at least one physicist (Jim Al-Khalili of Surrey University, a British physicist and popular broadcaster) quipped, “Nobel prizes all round. . . . It’s the Higgs.” Indeed, some in the physics community apparently would have been overjoyed with even a much less definitive showing, as physics blogs have been literally foaming at the mouth, hot on the trail of this announcement for several weeks now.
It is, in the end, a real shame that the US voluntarily gave up it’s leadership in particle physics on a day of such scientific triumph. All this staggering honor and history being made could have lent much to our prestige and confidence in an era when so many are questioning so much. Our Congressional failures to fund the continuation of US dominance in a field created by US ingenuity and genius, will be now be a our legacy in the field of particle physics, where we will not get a chance for a re-do because the train has truly left the station.