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Posted at 02:01 PM ET, 12/13/2011

Higgs boson: Are you there, God particle? It’s me, CERN!


This is how the collision looked, Officer! (FABRICE COFFRINI - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

There’s been an update on the Higgs boson.

This is the God particle. Like God, it might exist, or it might not. If it turns out not to exist, then many people who have spent their lives yelling about science will be very disappointed.

If I’m understanding this correctly, the Higgs boson is called the God particle because it imparts mass to other particles. Mass isn’t weight, it’s resistance to being moved. The Higgs isn’t the person handing out doughnuts, it’s the person who turns on “Mad Men.”

“Shh,” someone says. “Move over, I can’t see Jon Hamm.”

“No,” everyone else says. “Shh yourself.”

I don’t know quite how it imparts mass — that “Mad Men” theory was actually my guess — but apparently it is vital for the Standard Model of particle physics that it does, and if it doesn’t exist, we will all have to wander off and rethink our lives and all the particles will throw wild orgies and bacchanals in the resulting void and read a lot of Nietzche.

The Higgs boson is not to be confused with the Higgs Boston, a particle that imparts Mass. to other particles and cares deeply about its sports teams. Nor should it be mistaken for the Higgins boson, which imparts class to other particles by teaching them that “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”

The Higgs boson would fill a major gap in particle physics, which has what scientists describe as a “loose end” where the Higgs needs to be.

It is notoriously difficult to spot. Compared to the Higgs, the Yeti is a paparazzi hog. According to people who actually understand these things: “The Higgs is so elusive that, even with the $10 billion collider, there’s no way to see it directly. Theories suggest the Higgs is created in collisions of subatomic particles, but it only exists for about a yoctosecond, or one-septillionth of a second. It then decays into other particles. The scientists at CERN study the debris field for signals consistent with a Higgs having decayed.”

To put this in layman’s terms, a “yoctosecond” is about the unit of time Kim Kardashian was married. Like the Higgs, the only evidence of her marriage is a debris field of decayed particles and the disappearance of several million dollars you thought you had a yoctosecond ago. A yoctosecond is even less time than you are allowed to be a Republican front-runner.

But unlike the Kardashian nuptials, this matters.

And because its existence is so brief and the evidence could reflect some other oddity, the hunt for it is laborious. “Physicists,” The Post’s article reported, “do not consider data conclusive until the odds of a fluke have been reduced to less than a million in one.” To put this in perspective, that’s almost as certain that you’re right as Newt Gingrich feels whenever he speaks.

But for scientists, that can be a long time coming, although we might have the results as early as next year.

This would be huge. To me, as a non-scientist but passionate “Star Wars” fan, descriptions of the Higgs always sounds basically like we’re on the verge of discovering the Force. Here’s one from Joe Lykken, quoted in Joel Achenbach and Brian Vastag’s piece about this morning’s announcement from CERN: “It’s not just a particle, it’s also a force field that touches every other particle.”

And you know what that means: If the Force exists, then soon I will be able to make toast without getting up from my chair.

But this isn’t important in the hokey Gifts-for-Geeks way that developing, say, the capacity to construct a light saber or travel at warp speed or hire a robot bride from Brookstone would be important. We need this to tie together the Standard Model of particle physics, and it will bring us — as Achenbach notes — a few steps closer to understanding the rules by which our universe operates.

“I don’t know what they needed to construct a Large Hadron Collider for,” Newt Gingrich interrupts. “They could have just asked me.”

But this begs a larger question. There are rules? There might be some underlying structure of order in the midst of all this apparent chaos? That’s a really frightening thought.

By  |  02:01 PM ET, 12/13/2011

Tags:  Science, huzzah

 
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