10 mind-blowing facts about the CERN Large Collider you need to know

A general view of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment is seen during a media visit to the Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the French village of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, near Geneva in Switzerland © Pierre Albouy

A general view of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment is seen during a media visit to the Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the French village of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, near Geneva in Switzerland © Pierre Albouy

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Yes, there is a God (particle)

‘We have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs Boson it is’


Because of a dramatic announcement last week by scientists based in Europe, the scientific world has to reassess its theories of how the universe came into being and what is holding it together.

At the 48th Moriond Conference in Italy, a report discussed CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or “Big Bang Machine,” and the findings from the July 2012 research that appeared to reveal the Higgs Boson, thought to be the basic building block in particle physics.

“The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent, and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs Boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs Boson it is,” said spokesman Joe Incandela.

The probability that last year’s data identification of the particle was a statistical fluke “is now becoming astronomically low,” said Tim Barklow, an experimental physicist with the ATLAS Experiment, who’s based at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The search for the Higgs Boson was one of the largest international scientific efforts in history, involving 4,300 particle physicists, engineers, technicians, students and support staff from 179 universities and institutes from 41 countries.

Having analyzed all the data collected to date from the ATLAS detector, approximately two and a half times as much as when the original discovery was announced, CERN was able to announce with a good degree of certainty that what was found was, in fact, the Higgs.

Since CERN scientists have said with “with more than 99 percent certainty” that the particle discovered was the Higgs, some physicists have stopped referring to the new particle as being merely “Higgs-like” and are just calling it the Higgs Boson.

It remains to be seen, however, if this is actually the particle predicted in the Standard Model of particle physics or if it is one of a new class of fundamental particles that also has been predicted. Finding the answer to this question may take considerable time.

The Standard Model of particle physics was the name given to a scientific theory that predicted how subatomic particles – particles smaller than an atom – were put together and how they interacted with each other. The Standard Model described a total of 17 particles, both known and unknown. Besides the particles that have been taught for years in schools: protons, neutrons and electrons, there are a raft of other newly discovered particles with outlandish names such as: muon, down quark, gluon, charm, tau neutrino and Z boson.

The Higgs Boson now joins the group.

All these particles fall into one of two groups, fermions, the building blocks of matter itself, and bosons, the particles that carry the forces that define our world.

Fermions take their name from Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), who described their behavior. In short, Fermi said that no fermion particles could occupy the same place at the same time. This principle carries on from the microscopic world to the larger macroscopic world.

Bosons, first described by Satyendra Bose (1894-1974) of India, however, have no problem occupying the same place at the same time. All the particles that make up light and other forms of electromagnet (RF) radiation are made of bosons. Photons are probably the most familiar example of a boson.

What made the discovery of the Higgs Boson so significant was not only that it seemed to round out the Standard Model, but also that it seemed to provide proof for the particle that is responsible for giving mass to every other particle. Without the Higgs, nothing in the universe would have any mass, hence the name “the god particle.”

The term “god particle” given to the Higgs Boson started out as a joke. In 1993, Dick Teresi co-wrote “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” with Leon Lederman, the Nobel prize winning physicist. Lederman wanted to actually call the Higgs the “g*d*** particle” because it was so elusive, but the editor of the book wouldn’t agree to it. They then called it the “god particle” to see what the editor would say. But just as the term “Big Bang” was meant as a joke, the name stuck.

In the 1960s, Peter Higgs, along with his collaborators, Robert Brout and François Englert, realized that the force carrying particles, the fermions, needed at some point to have a mass to exist. The three physicists then made a proposal to solve the problem. What is now called the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism gives a mass to some of the fermions when they interact with an invisible field, now called the “Higgs field,” which permeates the universe. Higgs Bosons are what comprise this field.

The trio postulated that just after what has been theorized as “the Big Bang,” the Higgs field was almost non-existent, but as the universe cooled and the temperature fell below a critical value, the field grew suddenly so that any particle interacting with it acquired some mass. The more a particle interacts with this field, the heavier it is. Particles like the photon do not interact with the Higgs field and therefore have no mass. A problem with the theory was that no experiment had observed the Higgs boson in action.

After the theory was first put forward, physicists were in a race to discover the boson. In August 2000, physicists working at CERN’s Large Electron Positron collider (LEP) saw traces of particles that might fit the right pattern, but the evidence was inconclusive. Just as the researchers were making progress towards finding the Higgs, the LEP was closed down in November 2000 and the research was moved to Fermilab in Batavia, Ill. Research on the boson seemed to stall until 2005 when CERN went online with the Large Hadrion Collider, the LHC.

The CERN discovery July 4, 2012, marked the conclusion of over a decade of searching for the particle.

One well-used analogy of the Higgs field is as follows:

Imagine you’re at a Hollywood party. The crowd is rather thick and evenly distributed around the room, chatting. When the big star arrives, the people nearest the door gather around her. As she moves through the party, she attracts the people closest to her, and those she moves away from return to their other conversations. By gathering a fawning cluster of people around her, she’s gained momentum, an indication of mass. She’s harder to slow down than she would be without the crowd. Once she’s stopped, it’s harder to get her going again.

This “clustering effect” is what Higgs and his team theorized. They believed that when another subatomic particle moves through the Higgs field, it creates a little bit of distortion – like the crowd around the star at the party – which gives mass to the particle.

CERN’s collider, just outside Geneva, is now down for repairs until 2015, but its researchers are poring over the unanalyzed data and look forward to the prospect beginning actual experimentation in two years.

It is ironic that the men who popularized the nickname for the Higgs Boson do not believe in God.

Both Lederman and Teresi are atheists.

The Bible already had addressed such unknowns.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, ISV)

John said, “Through Him all things were made, and apart from Him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:3, ISV)

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