July 4, 2012 is the day the universe changed. That, I’m sure, is how future historians will see the date when physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, the most important scientific discovery of the 21st century. Period.
While we here in the South Valley celebrated our nation’s freedoms with Independence Day parades, picnics, barbecues and fireworks, scientists around the world were celebrating the Higgs boson, a particle smaller than an atom that is the key to unlocking the mystery of why the universe has mass. The Higgs boson is popularly called in the media “the God particle,” a term that most physicists detest because it has nothing to do with religion. The term was coined by a publisher as the title of a best-selling book and refers to the Higgs boson’s contribution to creating the universe at the moment of the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.
The Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs, who in 1965 as a young theoretical physicist at the University of Edinburgh came up with the idea of a particular particle that would serve as an essential component of the Standard Model of physics, an eloquent equation describing how the universe works that’s short enough to put on a T-shirt. The Higgs boson creates an invisible field that permeates throughout all of space. The fast particles, such as photons, barely interact with the Higgs field and don’t gain any mass. But particles that are much slower in their speed gain mass as they interact with the Higgs bosons, thus creating the atomic elements that make up stars and planets and you and me.
The Higgs boson is the $10 billion question of science. That’s what it cost to build CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator that’s a 17-mile circle of super-conducting magnets built underground around the city of Geneva. Scientists sent protons around this circle at 11,000 times per second, aiming them with great precision to hit each other and create a subatomic collision.
To visualize the process, think of two accelerating train engines hurtling down a single railroad track toward each other. Aim a high-speed camera at the point of impact. At the moment the trains hit each other – BANG! The energy from their acceleration causes each train engine to explode apart, sending components such as wheels and gears out in all directions. The camera captures a series of photos of the various train parts flying through the air. From these photos, you can discover what parts make up the train engine. A similar process, except at a subatomic level, was used by scientists with the LHC to discover the Higgs boson. CERN’s accelerator essentially creates millions of mini-Big Bangs in a second. Instead of a high-speed camera, CERN uses two particle detectors the size of apartment buildings, each one containing 100 million sensor elements, to capture data of the particles produced by the impact.
The discovery of the Higgs boson is not just a triumph of scientific curiosity, it’s also a triumph of human collaboration to intellectually unwrap the secrets of nature and discover what surprises the universe holds in store for us. More than 3,000 physicists from more than 40 nations worked on the project. Some of them came from here in Santa Clara County as physicists analyzing the data at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Funding for the project came from taxpayers around the world.
For me, it seems appropriate that CERN’s announcement of the Higgs boson came on July 4. That particle is the key to understanding the Big Bang that created our universe. The Declaration of Independence was announced to the world on July 4, 1776. The historian Joseph Ellis describes the Declaration of Independence as the moment of the Big Bang of the American Revolution, the moment when American democracy emerged to set humanity on a new course of progress.
Our Founding Fathers never could have guessed where their Big Bang of American freedom would lead 236 years later. Perhaps it is the same with the Higgs boson. We might be on the verge of amazing new discoveries in advanced physics that will lead to exciting new technologies that will accelerate the course of human progress. Maybe in the coming decades, thanks to the Higgs boson, we’ll see advances in nanotechnology, quantum computing and perhaps technological applications we have yet to imagine.
The Higgs boson will rank up there with such discoveries as the electron in 1897 and DNA in 1953. At the time of their discovery, few people realized their true importance. And yet, they changed the course of science – and the course of society. No doubt, the Higgs boson will do the same.