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Closer to God


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A detector at the Large Hadron Collider
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  • A detector at the Large Hadron Collider
Besides being God's birthday, the Fourth of July is a big deal this year in that scientists at the Large Hadron Collider are expected to announce that they've found evidence of . . . something relating to the Higgs boson, the theoretical particle that may or may not explain existence. It's been called the "God particle," actually, though its function is slightly more prosaic than that: the Higgs is the last piece in the standard model, the suite of theories that governs modern particle physics. It's thought that the Higgs functions to give mass to elementary particles, which—at the big bang—were created without it. New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye is given to calling the Higgs field a "cosmic molasses," through which all other particles pass and, in the process, get . . . sticky with mass. He's also compared it to a party full of eager hangers-on, attaching themselves to a celebrity—Christopher Walken, say—as he makes his way through the room.

Anyhow, ahead of the LHC announcement, yesterday west-suburban Fermilab made one of its own: the data had been compiled from over a decade of experiments in the lab's Tevatron supercollider, and were said to "strongly point to the existence of a Higgs boson," according to Rob Roser, whom I interviewed last year for a story about the shuttering of the Tevatron. Scientists have spent the interim analyzing results from what added up to 500 trillion collisions inside the machine; for the time that the Tevatron was operational scientists winnowed down the range of where they thought the Higgs might be, essentially trying to corner it. Roser told me:

What happens is after one year of running, you're looking at things that happen once every 10,000 times. After two years of running, one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, right? You keep peeling back the skin of the onion. So what we're looking at now with this kind of data sample is something we didn't have access to three, four, five years ago, because we didn't have the statistical precision to look at it.

Fermilab took the hunt as far as it would go, and now it's for the Large Hadron Collider—17 miles in circumference, as compared to the Tevatron’s four—to do the rest. Something exciting is expected to go down tomorrow; the Times reports that the "five living founders of the Higgs theory have been invited to a news conference" at CERN, which hosts the LHC, "heightening expectations that something big is in the offing."

Related reading:

"Crash Course," Elizabeth Kolbert's 2007 New Yorker piece on CERN, which was preparing to turn on the Large Hadron Collider

"Quantum Scoop," a 2007 piece in Slate by James Weatherall, who worried about the impact the Higgs's discovery would have on particle physics.

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