This is a series I want to start because there are so many things I wish I knew more about and that seem pretty complicated but can (sometimes) be broken down into manageable information for laypeople (or at least me as a layperson). Let’s start with the Large Hadron Collider aka Big Bang Machine. I saw a special on it on NOVA and then read some things about it and thought, dang, this is a BIG deal. Probably one of the greatest discoveries of our generation. How have I heard nothing about it?
What is the LHC a.k.a. Big Bang Machine?
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a large particle accelerator. This particle accelerator allows particles like protons to smash together at the speed of light, which unleashes incredible energy.The LHC let us see the conditions at 10^-12 seconds after the big bang (that’s one trillionth of a second). The planning stages began in 1984 and the machine first operated in September 2008. The LHC’s home is CERN, the Center of European Nuclear Research, located on the border of France and Switzerland. It has taken decades of work of by thousands of the world’s best physicists and engineers.
What is the Standard Model?
The Standard Model explains the known fundamental particles and forces, except for gravity (which has its own model called general relativity), and helps explain the Big Bang Theory. The Higgs Boson is a force particle that is the last and most challenging piece of the standard model to prove existed. It shows how particles gain mass.
We know what a lot of the particles created by high-speed proton collisions in the LHC are and they’re described in the Standard Model. There are matter particles and there are forces. Forces are the fields of energy that bring matter particles to light. Forces (called boson) include photons that carry electromagnetic force, gluons that carry the strong force that hold protons and neutrons together, and W and Z photons, that are responsible for the weak force governing radioactivity. Matter particles include quarks (that make up protons and neutrons) and leptons (such as the electron).
What’s the Higgs Boson?
Right after the Big Bang, an invisible energy field was somehow switched on and now fills the entire universe. It’s kind of like how a magnetic field affects some materials and not others. Higgs Boson theory suggested this new field selectively affected some particles, which caused some of them to take on mass. For example quarks interact strongly with this field, electrons interact less strongly, and photons (particles of light and energy without mass) don’t interact with this field. As a side note, photons are the mode used in Radiation Therapy treatment. Without the Higgs field, elementary particles wouldn’t have been able to take on mass, which would make it impossible for atoms to exist. The LHC needed to create such a profound disturbance in the Higgs field that the Higgs Boson (particles) would present themselves.
To prove the Higgs Boson existed (and still exists today), they needed to analyze proton collisions in the LHC. Within the spray of debris of two protons colliding at nearly the speed of light, physicists looked for a tiny bundle of energy (the Higgs Boson particle) that is proof of an energy field that fills all of space (the Higgs field).
The Higgs Boson was hard to find because as soon as it’s created it decays and it really only exists for about one deptosecond, which is 10^-21 seconds. Plus they weren’t sure what the mass of it was, so they had to sift through a lot of information. Out of every 1000 Higgs Bosons, a few should decay in a way that produces a pair of photons, so they had to look for high concentrations of a particular kind of photon to figure out the mass of the Higgs Boson. They saw excessive photon pairs at a mass of 125.3 +/- 0.6 GeV (gigaelectron volts), proving that was the mass of the Higgs Boson. Two of the main researchers behind this discovery won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013.
Now that it is proven the Higgs Boson exists, what will happen to the LHC?
The LHC will reopen in March 2015 after two years of upgrades. Now it will either prove or disprove the theory of Super Symmetry or Susy. James Gates, a theoretical physicist at MIT, developed this hypothesis of what happened with the symmetry of the universe and why there is an asymmetry of forces in matter. Gates says there is a new world of particles seen in the mathematics. The Susy theory gives every matter particle a force partner, called sparticles. Matter and forces are symmetrically related. They aren’t separate, but you can only see one partner from each pair.
In perfection, life can’t exist. Poetic, right? The building blocks of life couldn’t have formed when the laws of symmetry are perfectly framed in their symmetrical form. The Higgs field is the first clue of what broke the symmetry of the perfectly uniform early universe. Within the first moments of the Big Bang, a tiny fluctuation in symmetry happened, the Higgs Field emerged, and the particles of standard matter formed. There are particles that make up what we can perceive but there is also mysterious stuff we know is there, but can’t detect. This is dark matter. What are these missing pieces?
When the physicists turn the LHC on in March and analyze the data, Susy will either be proven or disproven, which is good either way, we’ll have more information and know if we need to alter the theory of Susy. The LHC will smash protons at two-times the energy used before. Through this physicists can study the Higgs with more precision and hopefully find something new, possibly uncovering information about dark matter.
What does it mean?
The larger meaning could go a few ways. It could prove that we look at time the wrong way, that there isn’t a beginning and end to everything, rather some things have always existed. Alternatively it could ultimately show that there is an intelligent creator, that something had to have been the impetus to get this all started. It could show something entirely different, which is part of the excitement.
One takeaway aside from the scientific aspect is that a journal rejected the paper Higgs submitted in 1964. Now it is the basis of a Nobel Prize and has changed how we understand the world. If that doesn’t tell you something about pursuing something you believe in with passionate conviction, I don’t know what will.
“Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!” Economist 3 Jan. 2015: 63-64. Print.