Is the Higgs Boson the God Particle or the Goddamn Particle ?

January 5, 2012 -- Part 1


2012 may become the Year of the Higgs. Over 5000 particle physicists have made a New Year’s resolution to finally discover this elusive particle or prove it doesn’t exist after all. For nearly half a century, physicists have searched for the Higgs boson, consuming over $10 billion and the careers of thousands of scientists. We may soon have a definitive result — or not.


Why is the Higgs boson such a big deal?


Many physicists believe the Higgs boson would “explain” why other particles have mass. This isn’t just academic. Particles without mass travel at the speed of light and are unable to form atoms, stars, planets, and life. Therefore, understanding the origin of mass is compelling.


There are 16 known fundamental particles (plus their antimatter versions). I didn’t include the graviton, the supposed “carrier” of gravity that remains undetected. Of the known particles, the photon and gluon have zero mass and the three types of neutrinos probably have very small masses, but these are not yet measured. The other 11 particles have non-zero masses that are all different and that span a huge range — the top quark “weighs” 338,000 times more than the electron. (Antiparticles have exactly the same mass as their particle partners.) We know precisely what these 11 mass values are, but don’t really have an explanation for why each has that particular value. In fact, we don’t know why any particle should have mass, or even what “mass” is.


To plug this embarrassing void, several theorists, including British physicist Peter Higgs, proposed the Higgs boson, a new hypothetical particle that is unlike all known fundamental particles (it has spin 0). The Higgs is said to be the only particle that is intrinsically massive; other particles get their mass by interacting to varying degrees with the Higgs “field” that permeates all space — it is everywhere, always. Other particles, such as electrons, interact with the Higgs field and in some sense “clump” with Higgs bosons, thereby acquiring mass. Some particles interact strongly with Higgs bosons and thus have large masses, while photons don’t interact with them at all and thus have zero mass.


But is that really an explanation? We replaced 16 unexplained masses with 16 unexplained Higgs interaction strengths (“coupling constants”). This may simply redefine our ignorance, effectively “kicking the can down the road.” Ultimately, this may prove to be an important advance of science, but I’d say we’re a long way from demonstrating that, even if the Higgs boson is discovered.


In his 1994 book, experimental physicist and Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman nicknamed the Higgs boson “The God Particle.” Lederman said he really wanted to name it “The Goddamn Particle” but his publisher vetoed that. This dichotomy highlights a schism between the two camps of fundamental particle physics.


Long ago, every physicist measured, calculated, and pondered: Why? Eventually the field grew so complex that no one could excel at all these tasks, and physicists split into two camps: experimentalists and theorists. Theorists strive to develop mathematical models of nature, while experimentalists build instruments and measure what nature does. The last physicist who was truly great in both theory and experiment was my father’s mentor Enrico Fermi, who died in 1954. Today, virtually no one attempts to do both theory and experiment — the schism is complete.


For theorists who believe the Higgs boson plugs a major hole in their mathematical models, it may be the “God Particle.” But for experimentalists who have searched in vain for decades, the “Goddamn Particle” seems more apt.


Part 2 of this newsletter will talk about the experimental search for Higgs bosons.




Dr. Robert Piccioni

Author of "Everyone's Guide to Atoms, Einstein, and the Universe",
"Can Life Be Merely An Accident?"

& "A World Without Einstein"