CERN, The Higgs, ATLAS, CMS and the Ultimate Experiment in the Science of Stuff

in MSE Division Head's Blog
January 19th, 2012

BISHOP-172Before the holidays, the world was mesmerized by a scientific result and millions of people listened in as it was discussed. The subject was the possible discovery of something called the “Higgs Boson” or simply the “Higgs”. (You know you have really made it when you become a one word name such as Cher, Gaga, Adele, ARod, Tebow, DaveB*…)

The Higgs is a particle that ties up our understanding of the subatomic world and the host of particles that we have seen over the last half century. As an example, imagine what you would think about the periodic table of the elements if you only knew about electrons and protons, not neutrons. While the overall structure would make sense to you, there would be a gap in your understanding that required a new particle to exist, the neutron.

You could look at the entire framework and say either we understand it and we have yet to discover this new particle (the neutron) or if we could prove it didn’t exist, we would then be forced to conclude that we don’t understand the entire structure. The Higgs is like this for the zoo of subatomic particles. If the standard model for understanding them is correct, it must exist. Otherwise, back to the drawing board.

The entire enterprise is one of the most amazing intellectual accomplishments of the human species. Hundreds of experiments over decades involving hundreds of thousands of people have seen a zoo of particles whose details and complexity are mind-boggling. Peter Higgs and others then predicted that another particle needed to exist to tie it all up. The human race, working together, built arguably the most complex device ever created and then working at the limits of energy and sensitivity, found (maybe) what they were looking for. It’s kind of like saying that if we understand physics correctly, there should then be a small blue rock on the moon and then building a rocket to take you there and finding it, just where you thought it would be. In science, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Folks at Boston University were part of the teams that built the ATLAS and CMS detectors, the two that have seen events consistent with the discovery of the Higgs. Enough data to be conclusive about its discovery should be available in 2012.

The entire enterprise is one of the proudest moments for the human race. It really is the ultimate experiment in the science of stuff. I, for one, am honored to have such scientists as colleagues.

Dave B.

*For the too serious among you, this is a joke. I’m not that famous, yet.