So they finally proved its existence. As far back as I can remember particle physicists were searching for this elusive particle, and on July 4 they announced its discovery beyond a any doubt – the chance that the evidence is due to random fluctuations is 1 in 3.5 million – or as they put it, “5 sigma” (what we biologists call 5 standard deviations).
Whenever I read the names of the subatomic particles I lapse into daydreaming. “Upper Quark” and “Lower Quark” provoke images of a alien society, highly structured with upper and lower class warriors. “Gluons”, that gooey green mass flowing slowly and engulfing everything in its way. The “Charm” and “Strange” particles never fail to suggest a wonderful world of wizards and fairies, and “bosons” and “muons” somehow have a zoological ring to them. Do bisons moo, like cows?
The Standard Model of elementary particles
Why don’t biologists have such evocative names for their genes? Why couldn’t we name the “language gene” “poetene” or “Shakespearion”, or at least “Foxy”, rather than FOXP2? Or the cancer suppressor gene P53 that can turn into a major cancer-causing gene simply by its inaction, shouldn’t we call it Janus, the two-faced Roman god? Or mTOR, which stands for mammalian Target of Rapamycin, the gene that basically regulates all pathways of metabolic and protein synthesis activities of the cell? Why not “Central Traffic Cop” or “Super Regulator”? Well, particle physicists are probably more imaginative than pedestrian biologists are.
In a way, this is not surprising, considering the stuff they are dealing with. Biologists deal with such relatively trivial issues as “what is life”, or evolution, or why do we have disease rather than uninterrupted health? The physicists deal with issues such as understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe. The only attempts at answering such weighty questions could be found in religious texts. But now, thank God, Physics is closing this gap in our knowledge, and in the process also narrowing the ground available for God and religion. Our brain is programmed to invent a cause for any natural phenomenon if one is not readily available. Hence the stories of Creation by all religions.
Physicists were trying to formulate a theory that will explain every physical phenomenon in the universe. Tall order, but they did it: they called it the Standard Model. It explained almost everything, but not all. One of the things that remained unexplained was very basic: what gives everything its mass? I know we don’t normally walk around thinking about such existential issues. But physicists are paid to do it. The Standard Model predicted (don’t ask me how) that there must be a subatomic particle that imbues everything with a mass. They named this hypothetical particle the Higgs Boson, after British professor Peter Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, who was one of six theoretical physicists who proposed its existence in the middle of the last century. Since then researchers obsessively kept trying to prove its existence. The awesome achievement is captured in a celebratory article in the New York Times of July 4, by Dennis Overbye. Here are some choice quotes:
“Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart”.
“…it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality”. You read it right: the nature of reality. It will turn obsolete almost all of Philosophy, not to mention Religion. We could one day describe in minute detail how Creation came about. The theory of Creationism will have a completely new meaning.
“Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry”.
As the article describes it ” the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous”.
Forget the political stuff for a moment. Here is the crux of the beauty of the Universe: The Standard Model describes a world of perfect symmetry, where all particles are devoid of a mass. Hard to visualize? Let’s take a photon, one of the subatomic particles. Photons oscillate in an amplitude that is absolutely symmetrical, the plus wave is identical in amplitude to the minus wave; beautiful symmetry, but no substance (mass). The deviation of the Higgs boson from perfect symmetry endows it with mass, and the collisions of the other mass-less particles with it imbues them with mass. Think of the Creation story in the Bible, where God imbued Adam with life by blowing “spirit” (wind) into his nostrils (the Hebrew word for spirit and wind is the same, Ruah). Is Higgs boson going to displace God? Only time will tell.
The most attractive aspect of the Higgs boson discovery is proof that the universe, and life, and all of human creativity and creations, are the result of imperfections, of deviations from perfect symmetry however comfortable it may seem. The Higgs boson and the non-conformist scientist, or artist, or social rebel have something in common: they imbue us with substance. Thank God for that.
P.S. I find it ironic that this discovery was announced on the fourth of July, in Europe’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. In 1993, the United States Congress canceled a larger American collider, the superconducting super collider, which would have been bigger than the European machine. The cost would have been $10 billion, but it was deemed a frivolous expenditure to satisfy a bunch of eggheads in their ivory towers.