Encounters With the God Particle
The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science
The Higgs mechanism also did something else: It put terms into the equations that were identical with terms that corresponded to the various particles having been given individual masses by hand. The mass of an object is a measure of the difficulty of speeding up or slowing down that object: Up until the invention of the Higgs mechanism, mass was just something you had to take as an otherwise unjustified given. With the Higgs mechanism in play, mass has a significance, an origin. Since mass is one of the most fundamental concepts in physical law, the Higgs mechanism, and the Higgs boson associated with this mechanism, becomes a central piece of our picture of the rules.
In fact the electroweak unification predicted three new and very heavy particles, and, even better, information on their mass ratio was numerically predicted. When Pope John Paul II visited me and my co-workers at CERN, a new machine had begun operation, and the discovery of these new particles, with exactly the predicted properties, was less than a year away. What remained was the discovery of the Higgs boson itself, which would eliminate alternative theories and cement the new interpretation of mass. Now, 30 years later, the Higgs boson is on the road to being fully confirmed.
I admit to a certain melancholy about all this. When I passed through CERN in 1982, I had been thinking about physics for some 15 years. At the beginning of that period, it was still possible for a professor and several graduate students to perform an experiment at one of the existing accelerators and get a result worth publishing, even to make a major discovery, in a matter of months. Theorists could both propose and analyze on the same time scale. By the early 1980s things had changed. Experiments in the new era involved bigger and bigger detectors. Bigger and bigger collaborations were necessary, and the time required to do an experiment grew longer. The accelerators, ever more expensive, were fewer, and their construction took years and involved dodging political minefields.
I am not complaining about the cost here. (I admit I did not build the machine myself.) The track record of something falling out of research on “pure” physics is pretty good. The World Wide Web arguably came from CERN, and techniques for the difficult analysis of the vast amounts of data from high-energy collisions are paying good dividends in other contexts. The current generation of accelerators has also taught us a great deal about superconducting technology.
But the fact that the United States has not provided an equivalent machine to check CERN’s results—or even to have beaten them to the punch—is discouraging. Will experiments at a single machine, without a second machine to check the results, be acceptable? This is not going to get any easier. Peter Higgs had to wait 50 years to learn that his proposal was at least partly proven right. He retired in 1996 and is now in his early eighties. Results from modern machines come slowly, and many theorists have wandered off into regions where unverifiable speculation is king. For the worker bees who stick to experimentation, thousand-person collaborations are now the rule. Will the most creative individuals be willing to spend all their time in such collaborations on a single life-spanning experiment? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Perhaps the popes still have something to teach us.
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