‘God Particle’, Higgs boson search area narrowing, CERN scientists say

December 14, 2011

Scientists working on two teams at CERN claim to be homing in on the Higgs boson, also called the ‘God particle’ using experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As Brian Vastag and Joe Achenbach reported:

It was a big day for a very small particle that, when all was said and done, remained invisible, indeed still theoretical. But even if scientists couldn’t claim Tuesday that they had “discovered” the fabled Higgs boson, they were exultant, convinced that their experiments at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva are zeroing in on a particle believed to be essential to the fabric of the universe.

“We know the goal is close,” said Fabiola Gianotti, a physicist representing one of two competing CERN teams searching for the elusive particle. “This is the nicest feeling.”

Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), said another year’s worth of data needs to be compiled before anyone can reach “a definitive answer on the Shakespearean question on the Higgs: To be or not to be?”

But the scientists in Geneva were leaning in one direction Tuesday: It will eventually be. The new results suggest that something roughly 125 times the mass of a proton is being created by collisions at the LHC. It’s not definitive, and that finding could prove to be a statistical fluke — hence the cautious words by the top scientists.

The Higgs is the most sought-after particle in physics, but no one’s ever seen one, even indirectly. Elaborate theories — the orthodoxies of modern particle physics — hang in the balance.

While the Higgs Boson is also called the ‘God particle’, its effect on religion will be small. As Brad Hirschfield wrote:

In truth, the term ‘God Particle’ was coined more by marketing than by theologians or scientists. The name was coined by Leon Lederman, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, for the title of a book -- The God Particle: If The Universe Is The Answer, What Is The Question?

It’s a great title, and whether it actually boosted sales or not, it is far easier to sell God than a Higgs Boson. How many people know what that is? Of course the same can be said for God, which is where this story gets more interesting.

The God Particle does not threaten faith and doesn’t even claim to do what most people imagine when they hear the term: replace God. Having found the God Particle, scientists would be the first to admit that they story is not over - that this new piece of information will help explain many things and open doors to new and even more complex questions.

What would be interesting is if more believers in God took that approach to their own beliefs, imagining that when they find evidence for that which they believe, they experience both affirmation AND challenge - appreciate new answers AND new questions.

Whatever or whomever we place our faith in, should be big enough that new understandings inspire greater awe and wonder even as we understand them better. Neither science nor God is great because they remain mysterious, but because they remain endlessly engaging and inspiring.

The search for the Higgs Boson has created as much confusion for some as excitement. As Alexandra Petri wrote in her satire blog, ComPost:

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.”

More from The Washington Post

What the possibly faster-than-light neutrinos might mean for physicists. The God particle and Tim Tebow

Higgs particle: Getting closer

I vote for the high-mass Higgs

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