The God Particle

There is a gold rush to find the “God particle”. One is at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment in Geneva – The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, better known by its historic acronym CERN. The LHC crosses the border between two countries. 200 feet underground, a proton does 17-mile lap (circumference) at nearly the speed of light. Guided by powerful magnets, it zooms through a narrow, circular tunnel that straddles the Switzerland-France border. There are masses of equipment spaced along the tunnel. The largest, ATLAS, has a detector that is seven stories tall. The heaviest, CMS is heftier than the Eiffel tower. The LHC also known as International Linear Collider (ILC) costs US$ 6.7 billion. Hadrons are a class of subatomic particles that include protons and neutrons. When they collide, they explode into dozens of other particles, even more infinitesimal and fleeting.

Their quest: find the secrets of the “God particle” or Higgs boson, and dark matter.

The other is American, an accelerator that is hidden beneath several squire miles of tall grass prairie and a small herd of buffalo at its Fermilab Tevatron, west of Chicago. It is a 7-mile long circumference particle accelerator that smashes opposing beams of proton and antiprotoms around a circular track.

When the particles collide, they will produce showers of debris as their energy gets transformed into mass. Particle physicists won’t see the God particle itself in that shower, but two of the four major experiments that the LHC will perform are cable of recording the debritus of the disintegrating Higgs – the tale tell signal that a Higgs is decaying. The particles – rather the debris – will show up in a detector’s computer. The Higgs boson is presumed to be massive compared with most subatomic particles. That’s why it needs a huge collider to produce a Higgs – the more energy in the collision, the more massive the particles in the debris.

The final race started in June 2010, to find a subatomic particle, and to explain why matter has mass. By smashing pieces of matter together, creating energies and temperatures not seen since the universe’s earliest moments, the LHC could reveal the particles and forces that wrote the rules for everything that followed. The physicists hope to pick out of the debris from the LHC’S high energy collisions, a particular piece of puzzle. Some call it “God particle”. It could help answer one of the most basic questions for any sentient being in our universe – a place without God. The major issue for CERN is how to decide they have found Higgs.

Physicists from all over the world are waiting with nail-biting enthusiasm to prove the existence of a particle that is surmised to be at the heart of the matter. It is also at the heart of atheism. An atheistic revival is sweeping America – The Humanist Society. Atheism relies heavily on science, as I do. God particle has been the missing link. Scientists currently believe that the collider will prove the existence of God particle, if it exists. Then there will be serious implications for a large sector of physics and for atheism. As of August 2010, the God particle has yet to be confirmed experimentally.

“The God particle” is another name given for Higgs boson, in honour of the University of Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed its existence more than 40 years ago.

The name The God particle is borrowed from the title of Leon Lederman’s book, The God particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? Lederman, the Nobel laureate, dubbed the theoretical boson “the God particle” because its discovery could unify understanding of the content of the universe and help human “know the mind of God” (metaphorically speaking). Many scientists dislike it as overstating the importance of the particle. A new name now is chosen by a jury of physicists, “the champagne bottle boson”.

The Higgs boson is the only reasonable explanation we have for the origin of mass. Without the Higgs, all fundamental particles would be massless, and the universe would be very different. The Higgs is believed to be related to the mechanism by which the matter particles get their mass, but there is no theory yet as to why different particles have different masses. Most physicists believe that there must be a Higgs field that pervades all space. The Higgs is a crucial part of the standard model of particle physics, but no one has ever found it. It has been suggested that the search for the Higgs boson could unlock the riddle of dark matter and dark energy, the invisible substances that together are thought to comprise 96 per cent of the mass of the universe.

DARK MATTER: Those of us, who have studied physics, are familiar with dark matter. Dark matter is a matter that cannot be detected by its emitted radiation but whose presence can be inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter such as stars and galaxies. Estimates of the amount of matter in the universe based on gravitational effects consistently suggest that there is more matter than is directly observable. In addition, the existence of dark matter resolves a number of inconsistencies in the Big Bang Theory. There is currently much ongoing research attempting to discover exactly what this dark matter is.

Our solar system is organised into planets including the earth, orbiting around the sun. On a scale much larger than the solar system, stars collect themselves into galaxies. The sun is an average star in an average galaxy called the milkyway. On a still larger scale individual galaxies are concentrated into groups known as clusters of galaxies. Any material which is in the space between the galaxies or a force, or glue, that holds the clusters together is gravity – the mutual attraction of everything in the universe for everything else. In the standard model of particle physics, the spaces between galaxies are filled with a hot gas that shines on x-rays instead of visible light. By studying the distribution and temperature of the hot gas scientists can measure how much of it is being squeezed by the force of gravity from all the material in the cluster and determine how much material, matter, there is in that part of space. Most of the stuff in clusters of galaxies is invisible and since these are the largest structures in the universe held together by gravity, scientists then conclude that most of the matter in the entire universe is invisible.

If the Higgs exists, it would fill a worrying gap in the Standard Model, the century-old notional structure for describing the fundamental nature of matter. If the Higgs does not exist, it will be back to the drawing board.  Just because it can not be detected by the present available technologies does not mean that it does not exist.  Just saying the God particle is God’s doing would be like saying how gravity was God’s doing.

The writer is based in the UK.                                         

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