The declaration of the Higgs boson and what it means

This past Fourth of July was like most other Fourth of July holidays. It included getting up late, preparing an All-American meal (which turned out to be boiling some corn and cutting cubes of watermelon), swimming in the afternoon, and by late evening attending a fireworks show to commemorate the United States’ 236th birthday. Little did I know, this fourth of July, in another part of the world a different historical event was taking place—the declaration of the Higgs Boson.

The Higgs what? Exactly. It has also been famously called the ‘God particle’, not that that helps any. Reading the news articles, I am told this discovery is a momentous event, the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st century in fact. I must point out that we are only in the first 12 of 100 years in the 21st century. So this discovery is more momentous than completing the Human Genome Project back in 2001 and presumably anything else we might discover in the next 88 years.

Needless to say the breaking news did not interrupt my Fourth of July holiday none whatsoever. If you’re not a physicist and you live in a society that cares more about material results (you know stuff you can see, eat, touch, gossip about kind of stuff), this momentous event about discovering something no one can see (not even with powerful microscopes), unsurprisingly leaves the rest of us nonphysicists asking, “So what?” 

It wasn’t until returning to work (where caring about the news is a useful distraction) that I first heard about the momentous Higgs Boson discovery. Oh sure I heard of the project before and even the ramping up about a possible announcement that same week. It had something to do with a very expensive and enormous instrument, the Large Hadron Collider it’s called.

Photograph from Boston.com, by Maximilien Brice (c) CERN

The instrument accelerates two particles to extremely high speed (almost light speed), then allows the two particles traveling in opposite directions to experience a spectacular, albeit tiny, head-on collision. The high-energy collision is so spectacular it is likened to a mini Big Bang. This mini Big Bang is explosive enough to break apart the fabric of the universe including a particular invisible energy field, that we think exists, but otherwise have no proof of. Alas analyzing the aftermath of the explosion for evidence of this hypothetical energy field is the whole point.

It’s like living in the ocean and not being able to see water as a distinct entity. Instead, we theorize that we are surrounded by a field of water and in order to prove it we spend 15 years and ten billion dollars building an enormous facility and equipment for a special explosion that will allow us to glimpse at one separated water molecule for a fleeting moment in the ensuing fray. (I can see why the discovery was so important for those involved. If it wasn’t the biggest discovery of the 21st century, it would have been the biggest losing bet of the 21st century.)

Instead, by way of the analyzed data of numerous mini Big Bang explosions over the course of four years we gloriously glimpsed it—one separated unit (Higgs Boson) of the larger Higgs field we live in, but cannot see. It’s all a little too little perhaps for the average person to see what the big fuss is about. It takes the rest of us nonphysicists a while to glean meaning from such work and this blog over two months after-the-fact is my own attempt.

Physicist Peter Higgs. Photograph by Murdo Macleod

The hypothesis, as proposed by Peter Higgs some 50 years ago, is that a field of energy, the Higgs field, pervades the universe everywhere with uniform strength (unlike gravity fields that are weaker with increasing distance from its source). The existence and proof of such a universe permeating field does seem remarkable and up until this July 4th we could say it’s possible that no such remarkable field exists.

This field is physicists’ best guess for explaining how particles like protons and neutrons obtain the property of mass. Mass apparently is not an intrinsic value. This point alone is worth noting. Without mass, particles and anything made of particles, including you, would behave more like light photons, which have zero mass and travel at light speed. Fantastic image.

But of course we all know we don’t move at light speed and we even have the propensity to be essentially motionless on a couch, for example in front of a television hours at a time. Mass is the only reason we can move at slower speeds (and alternatively the reason we cannot move at light speed). It is in short the reason we have this physical world we live in. If mass is not intrinsic, we know there must be a mechanism for it; the question was what mechanism and the best guess (now more of a certainty) is the Higgs Field.

The Higgs field interacts with particles in a way that gives them the property of mass, slowing their velocity. Light photons, on the other hand, do not interact with this field and therefore have no mass. If you remember the periodic table, hydrogen, at the top left corner is the lightest atom with an atomic mass of one. So hydrogen interacts with the Higgs field, but very minimally compared to other atoms like the more massive oxygen atom further down the table. Of course whether we discovered the Higgs boson or not, the periodic table remains the same and life goes on. And maybe that’s why we are mostly left with saying “So what.”

Personally for me, the discovery of the Higgs Boson and therefore the implied existence of the Higgs field means there exists an invisible medium enveloping everything from the smallest of particles to the largest conglomerates, imparting mass to these objects via a profound and continuous interaction between the seen and the unseen. It means that the existence of other such profound, difficult to detect, fields is more likely than before. For example, if not the Higgs field, then it is possible some other field (call it the Intention field) permeates everywhere in the universe and is responsible for supernatural phenomena like a pyschics’ ability to read people’s intentions.

Omnipresent, uniform, profound, fields of energy? This is the stuff of God-like proportions. Maybe the Higgs boson reference as the God particle is fitting after all and supports the belief that science and spirituality converge. From where I sit the discovery is as large a discovery as the light bending proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It makes the idea of another important all seeing, all knowing, all loving energy field a bit more real than before. Regardless, the declaration of the Higgs boson is, to generalize and to give literal weight to otherwise similar ‘fluffy’ statements, a declaration that unlike Independence Day, by way of a mysterious unseen field of energy permeating everywhere in the universe, we are all in fact connected.

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