Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Heavy Physics & The Ultimate Particle

We’re either gawking like tourists or compulsively peeling the onion. Gawking at celebrities and superfluous royalty, secretly enjoying the pointless gamesmanship that passes for politics in this post-modern house of mirrors, or else pulling back the layers of reality, peeling away anything that keeps us from some ultimate truth. Or both at the same time.

At the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where men in white coats send atoms crashing into one another at enormous speeds, they are definitely looking for something ultimate: The thing that makes everything else possible.

They call it the Higgs boson particle, sometimes known as the God Particle.

This week scientists conducting two experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva suggested that they may have found the elusive particle, the one that gives everything mass. The question is whether we are one step closer to answering the big question --- what are we made of? -- or just being teased by another false alarm.

One of the main scientific goals of the huge multi-billion dollar atom smasher is to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle believed to give everything in the universe mass. It's a key part of the Standard Model used in physics to describe how particles and atoms are made up.

Rumors that scientists working on the Collider found evidence of the Higgs boson began to circulate last April after a supposed internal memo was posted on the Internet. Most physicists urged caution. Many candidates that looked good in collision experiments have been dismissed on further examination.

So, Why call it the God Particle? That began with the title of a popular science book by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman, who was a Fermilab director. His first instinct was to call his book The Goddamn Particle, he said, because nobody could find the thing. His editor suggested that The God Particle would sell more copies. True story.

Is it Godlike? Perhaps, if God is somewhat hypothetical. Its main job is to give mass to all the other particles, so you could say it has a centralizing influence. It also relates to a pretty heavy question: What gives matter its mass? In other words, what are we made of?

In the scientific community the particle is named for the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs. It’s the so-called missing piece in the Standard Model, so scientists obviously want to find it, or something as close as possible. At CERN in Geneva, billions have been spent to prove that it’s there. Many people have seen the photos of a huge circular tunnel, or have read Angels and Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code in which a fanatic steals a vial of what could be anti-matter capable of destroying the Vatican.

Tens of thousands of particle physicists are at work around the world. Before the rest of us were online, the wizards at CERN helped the Pentagon invent the World Wide Web, initially as a way for them to keep in touch. Decades ago, technical and scientific projects began to get huge, involving thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians around the world, what physicist Freeman Dyson dubbed "Napoleonic Physics." 

Over time, however, one side effect has been premature leaks and false alarms about scientific breakthroughs, and much hyperbole. The latest announcement is basically a heads up that the CERN-iacs in Geneva are still smashing atoms, faster and smaller than ever, and will keep at it until they know exactly what we’re made of – or create a black hole that swallows the planet.

This essay was originally developed for Maverick Media’s Rebel News Round Up,* broadcast live on April 28, 2011 at 11:15 a.m. on WOMM (105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator) in Burlington. Also discussed on the air that week:

ROYAL SNOOZE   Why (some) people care about William and Kate

BIRTHER MADNESS  Now that Obama’s birth certificate is out, where does the sideshow go from here? Hint: destablizing a regime is a full-time job.

THE NEXT WAR   Another cyber attack has hit Iran’s nuclear industry. Is someone conducting cyber war? Who let the dogs out, and how does information war change things?

CITY HALL STAND UP?   Comedian and lawmaker Jason Lorber may run for mayor of Burlington in Vermont. It could be a good fit. You definitely need a sense of humor to manage that circus. A look ahead that the 2012 landscape in the People’s Republic.

*Edited transcripts don’t include extemporaneous comments and last minute changes or additions.

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