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The Greatest Technological Achievement in History

20 July 2012 One Comment
The Greatest Technological Achievement in History

On July 4th 2012 CERN and the team from the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Since then there have been a lot of articles in the mainstream media with headlines referring to the “god particle” and a lot of hype but not much actual science. I’m not a physicist but I’ll try to summarize my understanding on what this is and how it may impact us in the short and long term.

Physics and indeed Science operates on a premise of “model” based reality. Essentially admitting that we cannot definitively “know” anything in absolute terms but rather that all knowledge is built up in the context of a framework or model. Stephen Hawking in his book “The Grand Design” gives the example of a fish in a fishbowl. The fish’s view is distorted by the curve of the glass in the bowl. So if a human observes a star passing by the bowl and the fish observes the same star, they can each develop equations that describe the motion of the star. The fish’s equations will be more complex due to the distortion of the glass but they can still be developed and be useful. They can be used to make predictions which in turn can be tested against observation.

So it is with physics; “the Standard Model” describes the sub-atomic particles and their interactions through the electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear forces. Gravity is left out as it’s effect is so small at this level. Sub-atomic particles are just that, particles that make up atoms and you already know at least one of them; the electron.  There are a few others…

At the highest level there are 2 types of particles – matter particles (called fermions) and force-carrier particles (called bosons). In matter you have Quarks and Leptons – the electron is a type of Lepton.  There are 6 types of Quark and 6 types of Lepton = a total of 12 matter particles. The other interesting thing is they are symmetrical, you have the up-quark and the down-quark, the electron and anti-electron known as the electron neutrino and so on.  This’ll be important in a minute…

On the force-carrier side you have 4 types of boson, one for each of the 4 forces, the one you might know here is the photon, the light carrier responsible for the electromagnetic force.  There others are the W/Z bosons, the graviton and the gluon for the weak, gravity and strong nuclear forces respectively.

The Higgs boson is the latest boson that’s been discovered. It’s also the heaviest. Because it’s so heavy it lives for a very short time and this in turn makes it hard to detect.

The Higgs is believed to mediate force between the Higgs field and the other force-carriers, imbuing them with mass in the process. This is what makes it so special. Without this particle, the Standard Model would need a lot of other particles to exist. Not only that it would mean the W and Z bosons would have to be massless when in fact experimental data has shown them to have mass.

Ok, big deal. What possible use could this be to anyone?

The first particle in the Standard Model was discovered in 1874, the electron. No one knew at the time what use it would be. In fact it was theorized back as far as 1831. I don’t think I have to list out here all the amazing uses we have found for it, from TV to Internet, Medicine to Space Travel. etc. etc.

Who knows what we will do with our new found understanding of the Higgs Boson? Will it be possible to convert pure energy into mass? (we’ve already done the reverse to grave effect).  The potential is huge and it will be many hundreds of years before we answer this question.

It’s probably easier if we focus on what we’ve gained so far in looking for the Higgs, and I’m not talking about a bunch of scientists geeking out over Feynman diagrams. In order to observe the Higgs scientists built the Large Hadron Collider (hadrons are composite particles made up of a bunch of quarks). This in itself represents an incredible achievement. People look at the Pyramids at Gisa and say “wow, those are amazing”. Consider the LHC.

  • The LHC is the largest single machine ever built. It’s also the largest fridge ever built (the magnetic rail operates at just 2 degrees above absolute zero).
  • It’s the purest vacuum in the solar system
  • It’s the most sensitive detector in the world. Generating 15 Petabytes of data per year.
  • the LHC generates more than 600 million particle collisions per second.
  • There are 150million sensors delivering data 40million times a second!

Just as countless innovations came from the space program in the 60s and 70s, the LHC will offshoot innovations almost every area of life in the coming years. We’ve already got faster internet and grid computing through the Open Science Grid and we can expect much more to come in the future.

The discovery of the Higgs boson will likely be the greatest technological achievement of my lifetime (I’m not dead yet).

Will the Higgs Boson eliminate the need for god? This is a very personal question and not something I can answer. Consider though that belief (in anything) is by definition an act of faith, not something based on rational thought or reasoning. Why then would the introduction of new data make that belief stronger or weaker? For those that seek answers the Higgs will provide some explanation. Science exists not for answers but rather for more questions and I’m sure the Higgs will keep us busy for many years to come.


One Comment »

  • Alek Davis said:

    Great primer. Thanks Francis.

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