Will they or won’t they and what will it mean? Higgs Boson for the Physics-cally Challenged

Electrons are made up of extremely tiny particles that you cannot see with the naked eye unless you have been drinking.
              — Dave Barry

The Large Hadron Collider. Image from DVICE

Coming July 4: The secrets of the Universe revealed.  Maybe. Maybe not.

July 4 is the start of the International Conference on High Energy Physics in Australia and rumors are flying that the existence of Higgs boson may have been confirmed.  Rumors are also flying that the Higgs boson, sometimes called the God Particle, might not be all it was cracked up to be.

Remember the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)? Back in 2008, rumors flew that when it was turned on, it would create a black hole that would suck the earth into itself.  Didn’t happen.  The LHC slid off the front pages in favor of more interesting stories like the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katy whats-her-name.

Deep in a hole under Switzerland, however, the voodoo continued.  The LHC is, I think, the biggest project humans have ever attempted as a group science project.  It’s in a tunnel about 17 miles in circumference and races streams of particles toward each other at 99.9% of the speed of light in a vacuum that contains fewer particles than in the emptiest places in the solar system.  It has to be very cold to work, -456 degrees, colder than deep space, and keeping the collider that cold requires $100,000 of electricity every day.  A lot of countries chipped in to build it.  Cost so far about $33 billion.  The idea is to get the particles to smash into each other, and the resulting debris will hopefully be smaller, undiscovered particles that in turn will confirm the most favored theory of why nature works the way it does.

Like everything I try to understand and then write about, the Higgs boson and the reasons why such a fuss is made about it, are mind-bogglingly complex.  This is not territory for the non-physicist, but what the heck?

Let’s just say that it was hoped that the LHC would reveal the Higgs boson, believed to be the missing link that would prove super string theory, which holds that at the smallest level all matter is actually vibrating stings that pop in and out of parallel universes.

This is all part of an epic debate taking place in the world of physics.  About 50 years ago physicists started  working on a Standard Model to explain everything, including dark matter, energy, mass and how to unite quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Standard Model model relies on an effect called super symmetry which in turn relies on being able to prove that particles have partners called sparticles.  Seriously.  Don’t let anyone tell you physicists don’t have a sense of humor.  Predictions based on the Standard Model have been confirmed true at an astonishing pace in the intervening decades, but physicists hit a brick wall when it came to finding evidence of sparticles.  Is the Large Hadron Collider still too crude an instrument?  Or is the current theory of everything bunk?

If the Higgs boson is observed, has the proper mass and behaves appropriately oddly, it could confirm super symmetry and super string theory.  If not, physicists with other theories who have been basically shouted down by Standard Model theorists, might have a chance to home in on some of that Standard Model funding.

In either case, tune in to your favorite physics news source this Fourth of July, and raise your sparticles, I mean sparklers, to the imponderables.  Happy Holiday.


      • lol. Don’t get me wrong, I think science has a lot of value and has benefited humankind immensely, but just as religion has cost and caused suffering in the name of “God”, so science has had similar cost and impact in the name of “Progress” and “Knowledge”. I believe that science and religion, math and magic all have a place and are all aspects of the whole.


        • If I’m understanding you, I agree. What you call the whole, I’d call nature. Everything that goes through our heads is as much a part of nature as are forests, oceans and stars. Everything we build, every story we tell, our ways of discovering, and the things we tear down and reshape, all part of a grand process that we barely glimpse, let alone understand. Our learning is both elegant and clumsy, and when we forget that, when we start thinking that our beliefs are actually truth, we get stuck. We stop growing.


  • Thanks for a great post. It is a life changing discovery. It may be an obscure part of the world of Particle physics today, but, the final use of this discovery will only come to be realised in years to come.
    I want to post this in my Blog with your permisioon if I may!


    • Feel free to re-post, and thanks for checking first.

      Physicists are waffling about what they have or haven’t discovered, but it’s … SOMETHING. The size, scope and audacity of this project blows me away. Are we at the lip of something new and mind-altering? The “maybe” makes it tantalizing. I am rooting for this project becoming a leap forward for humankind, but it’s too soon to tell.


  • Shankar — Honored to be re-blogged by an orthopaedic (love the British spelling) surgeon and author. Thanks —


  • The drama in quantum physics is just the best, isn’t it?

    Love this post and like you, I am so excited about the SOMETHING that most seem to agree, sort of, is the Higgs boson. Last night (July 9), I watched a Charlie Rose discussion on Higgs boson with two physicists who were already wondering whether this was standard model or not and what that may or may not mean for string theory as well as super symmetry.

    I’m absolutely fascinated by quantum physics and what a wonderful post yours is: clear, thoughtful and with wit. Really fine writing.

    And then I ran across your words in the comments: “Our learning is both elegant and clumsy, and when we forget that, when we start thinking that our beliefs are actually truth, we get stuck. We stop growing.” Wise, wise words; I really look forward to reading more of your posts.



  • Thank you Karen. I am at a loss for words. Rarely happens at our house (just ask the nearest and dearest). My understanding of physics is at about the level of a 5 year old looking through a knothole, but for whatever it has contributed to allow people like us to connect like this, I am amazed, grateful, cowed and wowed. Best wishes.


  • Well, if they finally do find the God particle, poor Albert Einstein can rest in peace at last! My husband and I have been following the news about it closely. I’m a personal fan of string theory and quantum physics in general. This was a good, informative post.

    (JA Howe)


  • Thank you JA Howe. I think Albert E is itching for another round. Physicists are cagey about what they’ve maybe found, but far as I can tell, it’s a Pandora’s box. Sounds like we might have to wait another TEN YEARS before we get the next tidbit. That’s probably how long it will take for me to absorb this bit anyway. Best wishes, J


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