Monday, May 17, 2021

The God Particle

By Madeleine Kando

In the Middle Ages people weren’t very interested in things that didn’t affect their daily lives. If religion didn’t have an explanation for something, it meant that it wasn’t important. End of story.

Today, people are interested in things that don’t directly affect their daily life, but up to a point. How many of us are truly interested in finding out about quantum mechanics, dark matter, the uncertainty principle and other esoteric concepts that only a fraction of humanity truly understands? Even famous physicist Richard Feinman said: ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics’.

I belong to the category of humans that suffers from what is called “The Dunning-Kruger Effect”, which means that the stupider you are, the smarter you think you are, (and vice versa). I think I understand something only because I am too stupid to realize that I don’t understand it.

Do particle physicists tackle the problems of world hunger or poverty? Do they make the world a better place? Or is it all a gigantic waste of human capital and resources? Why should we care if a sub-atomic particle has a half spin or a whole spin, why it decays in a billionth of a second? Whether it is a Fermion, a Gluon or a Boson?

Well, I’ll tell you why. Because without quantum mechanics, we wouldn’t have smart phones, x-ray machines or laser surgery, just to name a few. Without particle physics, we wouldn’t have discovered the Higgs field and without the Higgs field, an energy field that permeates all of space, I wouldn’t be sitting here, trying to write about something that is way beyond my pay grade.

Once you embark on the road to the infinetisimally small, you enter a realm that borders on the incomprehensible and in my case, it has turned into an addiction. How can it not, when you read headlines like ‘Science discovers the God Particle’, or ‘the Particle at the End of the Universe’.

You see the Higgs Field gives certain particles their mass and without that mass, there would be no atoms (electrons would move at the speed of light and would not stick around long enough to combine into atoms). There would be no molecules, no cells and no bloggers that suffer from the Dunning Kruger effect. 

Imagine a busy cocktail party. An average person could wander through the crowd with ease. But a more popular figure would be mobbed as soon as he or she entered the room, making passage more difficult. In this example, the party-goers represent the Higgs field, and the people walking through the crowd represent particles to which the field gives mass. 

The picture shows the LHC and a much larger collider, the FCC

that is still in the planning stage.

The Higgs Boson, a.k.a. ‘the God Particle’*, was discovered in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Imagine a circular, underground structure 27 kilometers in diameter, 100 meters down in the ground, that cost 9 billion dollars to build, for the sole purpose of smashing protons into each other at almost the speed of light. Isn’t that every child’s dream, to smash things with that kind of force? 

From what I understand, that is exactly what happens. They smash and smash until every so often something ‘different’ gets smashed off. Sporadically, a Higgs Boson appears, which is believed to have permeated the very early universe.

It looks like particle physicists have a problem connecting massless particles and particles that have mass (like you and I). How can something that has no mass turn into something that does have mass? Where does it acquire that mass? Why does something that originally was absolutely, boringly, uneventfully, symmetrical, like the early universe, become filled with these weird looking structures like galaxies, stars and planets?

Something must have broken that symmetry. Without it, nothing would be different from anything else. Like a desert. Everywhere you look, it’s just sand and more sand. Once there are oases, palm trees, cities, etc., that’s when the underlying symmetry is broken. See: The Physics Still Hiding in the Higgs Boson.

The discovery of the Higgs field, the stuff that fills all of space, explains why some particles have mass and others don’t. The stronger a particle interacts with the Higgs field, the more massive it becomes. Without the Higgs field, the universe would be one bland, never ending desert of darkness.

Another reason why the God Particle is important, is because it is the last piece of a puzzle that completes ‘the Standard Model’ of particle physics. It explains tables and chairs, the sun shining, rabbits and trees. The search for the ultimate laws of nature is still going on, but as far as the fundamental physics underlying us, the Standard Model IS complete. See: Sean Carroll - The Particle at the End of the Universe.

The concept of Supersymmetry, the new darling theory of physicists, would help explain why the universe consists of 5% matter, 27% dark matter (the stuff that keeps galaxies from falling apart), and 68% dark energy (which drives the universe’s ever-accelerating expansion).

What that Supersymmetry is, I cannot really explain, other than thinking of two ballerinas spinning together. Elementary particles have spin, at least most of them. If there were super symmetry, these known particles would do a pas-de-deux with a super partner particle that spins at a different rate. 

So you see, particle physicists may not solve the problem of world poverty or climate change, it does give us insight on how the world works and what our place is in this incredible vastness called the Cosmos. Isn’t that a question that most of us ask ourselves, at some point in our lives?  leave comment here

* A quantized manifestation of the Higgs Field. Physicist Leon Lederman called the Higgs the "Goddamn Particle”, trying to express how difficult it was to detect, since it took nearly half a century and a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator to do it. The press thought it was a much better idea to call it ‘the God Particle’ and the name stuck.