07.06.12

The Higgs Boson: Why You Should Care

Tiny particles visible for fractions of a second? Turns out the implications are a very big deal for how we understand the planet, the universe, and ourselves.

On the west side of Geneva, Switzerland, about 20 minutes outside the city center, is a research lab so big, so novel, that it literally straddles two countries. It’s a lab rich with history: it’s where physicists first realized they could isolate atoms. Perhaps most recognized, it’s where computer scientists began to assemble the Web. Not the Internet, but the more core system: The World Wide Web.

I visited CERN in 2008 for Newsweek and was told at the time that the ultimate pursuit was the Higgs Boson, a particle with a funny name that essentially explained the existence of everything. No wonder, then, that it was nicknamed "the God particle."

For all of the breathless, unintelligible talk about the Higgs, think of it this way. Imagine a set of Legos. As any 8-year-old knows, with Legos you can build anything: a castle, a race car—hell, even an aircraft carrier. But until now, Legos are the smallest building blocks we’ve ever known about. What if we could get even smaller? What if we could deconstruct a Lego block into more fundamental parts: the plastic, the adhesives, the coloring agent. That coloring die, in essence, is the Higgs Boson, something we’ve never seen before in a raw state. Except in this case, it would help explain some fundamental qualities about the universe, such as how it formed, why everything in it has the shape it does, and how much about our universe we still don’t know.

Scientists at CERN now believe that they’ve seen the Higgs. Not with their own eyes, but with massive computer systems hitched up to the Large Hadron Collider, a circular tube 16.8 miles (27 kilometers) in circumference that accelerates raw protons and other particles in opposite directions around the ring 11,000 times per second. At the perfect moment, they slam into each other, producing a massive explosion thought to rival the Big Bang, except on a much smaller scale. Only a particle collider can produce that much energy—the amount needed to produce a viewable Higgs.

No one imagined in 1897 what the electron would do, or how it would change humanity. But it led to the proliferation of electricity, which changed everything about life on Earth.

In the midst of global recession, fiscal austerity in Europe and worldwide jitters about civil wars and nuclear threats, the obvious first question is, “That’s great, but who cares?” That was also the question asked by some European leaders and voters in 2007 when the LHC was being built, at a cost of $10 billion. Will this really be worth it?, editorialists asked—a sentiment that has also been echoed recently, considering Europe’s fleeting public funds.

But we should all care, says Nickolas Solomey, a physicist at Wichita State University who once worked at CERN and has been peripherally involved in the research. Back in 1897, British physicist J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, which, as of then, was the biggest finding of all time. No one imagined in 1897 what the electron would do, or how it would change humanity. But it led to the proliferation of electricity, which changed everything about life on Earth.

Actual innovations involving the Higgs are believed to be huge. But they also aren’t expected to materialize for at least a few decades, when the particle can be more easily replicated.

Video screenshot

New Yorkers answer the question: What is the Higgs Boson?

“You might see a technology that helps us do imaging of mass [rather than just light or sound, like we currently have],” says Solomey. “Most of the universe is dark matter; with the Higgs, we can image our whole planet and the universe.” The result, then, would literally shed light on everything we’ve never seen before, from precious materials inside our planet to things floating around in space.

In the meantime, physicists remain a notoriously eager bunch, constantly posing new questions about the world and its creation. What could come next? Several physicists consulted by The Daily Beast say that understanding dark matter, which makes up more than 90 percent of the universe, would answer fundamental questions about how our planet formed, and how long we might last.

Some question whether dark matter could actually be studied on earth. And never mind if, the more earnest question is how. But physicist Gordon Kane at the University of Michigan has known better than to question the capability of intergalactic research in terrestrial research labs. About 10 years ago, while having dinner in Korea with the renowned Stephen Hawking, Hawking bet Kane that the Higgs was too lofty, too theoretical, and too fleeting to ever be observed on Earth. The amount of energy, Hawking said, was too great to detect the particle, which only exists for about one-trillionth of a second. The two men bet $100. Kane says he has yet to receive Hawking’s check.

Correction: An original version of this article stated that CERN was on the east side of Geneva. It is, in fact, on the west. Additionally, the purported finding that neutrinos traveled faster than the speed of light was later ruled a miscalculation. The Beast regrets the errors.