Thursday, July 5, 2012
A Big Bang: 'God particle' announcement gives weight to scientific theory, university contributions
MANHATTAN -- Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, announced on Wednesday, July 4, that they have all but proven that the subatomic Higgs boson -- or "God particle" -- exists.
The Higgs boson is the basic building block of the Higgs field – a kind of invisible cosmic molasses that permeates all space. It gives subatomic objects like quarks and electrons mass. The particle was hypothesized more than 50 years ago and helps explain the foundation of the universe and its creation billions of years ago.
According to Tim Bolton, a professor of physics at Kansas State University and one of the researchers affiliated with the worldwide subatomic search, the announcement is tantamount to scientists snapping a picture with the footprint and shadow of the particle, with the actual particle just out of frame.
"We have a rule in our field: Before we allow ourselves to definitively say that we've discovered the Higgs boson, we have to convince ourselves that the chances of our findings being caused by a statistical fluke is less than one in three million," Bolton said.
"This is a big announcement, but the observation and confirmation of the Higgs boson will probably be one of the 10 most important scientific accomplishments of the century," Bolton said. "Definitively saying that the particle exists is significant to the theory about how many of the fundamental forces work with all of the objects in the universe, which describes the behavior that has been observed in many, many experimental tests."
An international search
The Large Hadron Collider was built in 2008. It is the world's largest energy particle accelerator. Its high-energy enables scientists to observe the smallest materials in the universe -- effectively making it the world's most powerful microscope, Bolton said.
The accelerator works by recreating the conditions that were present in the Big Bang. Scientists believe this the only way to definitively observe the Higgs boson, which is suspected to be the last unobserved particle in existence.
Bolton is one of three Kansas State University physics department faculty members involved in the international project, which also includes several of the university's graduate students and postdoctoral research associates. Kansas State University is one of many universities and institutions throughout the world involved in the Higgs boson search.
Kansas State University researchers largely help with collecting and analyzing the data collected by the Large Hadron Collider's Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS. CMS is one of the four particle detectors operated by many universities throughout the world at the Large Hadron Collider, and one of two particle detectors devoted to hunting the Higgs boson and dark matter.
Kansas State University's Electronics Design Laboratory helped build the CMS's inner pixel tracker and several sets of the approximately 100 million electronic components that make up the roughly 72 foot long detector. University researchers also helped write the computer software used in the experiments.
Additionally, several of the university's scientists are stationed at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory -- Fermilab -- which observes high-energy particle physics.
Bolton and several of the university's professors; graduate students; and visiting undergraduate students in the summer research exchange program; watched the announcement's live webcast at 2 a.m. on Wednesday.
A divine theory
Scientists developed the Standard Model of particle physics to explain the workings of the universe at the smallest length scales. Broadly, the model states that our universe is composed of a fairly small number of building block particles called quarks and leptons that interact with one another via four basic forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces.
The Higgs boson constitutes the essential element of a new interaction introduced to reconcile a key contradiction between theory and experiment, Bolton said. Many observations show that the basic forces behave in such a highly symmetric fashion that the force rules imply that the building block particles can have no mass. Direct observations, however, reveal that the quarks and leptons possess a variety of masses. The Higgs idea is that the particles get their mass through constant interactions with Higgs bosons that occupy all space. These interactions preserve the simple patterns of forces observed by experiments. This, in part, earned the particle the nickname of the “God particle,” coined by U.S. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman.
"The idea behind it is that the mass of stuff in the universe is arranged in a non-apparent pattern to scientists that becomes more clear with the existence of the Higgs boson," Bolton said. "One could say that God is a physicist and He established the pattern for quantum field theory through the Higgs boson -- but that is a topic beyond my area of expertise. Many physicists, though, aren't really crazy about the 'God particle' title because it seems to imply that once it is confirmed to exist, it will answer all of our questions about nature."