Tiny Discovery, Big Impact

Back in 2012, scientists and physicists from all over the world discovered what they referred to as the “God particle.”

Named after Peter W. Higgs, one of the two theoretical physicists on the project since its 1964 inception, the Higgs boson was finally realized as the missing puzzle piece to what scientists know to be the standard model of physics nearly half a century later.

“This was probably the first time The New York Times had physicists celebrating on the front page,” joked Matthew Deady, professor of physics at Bard College, during his lecture for the Harrington STEM series, referencing the July 4, 2012 New York Times article “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe.”

In his lecture entitled “The Higgs Boson: What, How, and Why We Care,” Deady explained why the Higgs boson particle is such a big deal: it is the reason why all solid objects have mass, and might be scientists’ key to understanding how the forces of the universe work and how it is all held together.

“The idea was that this was due to an interaction that [objects] had with a fundamental field that Higgs and other people came up with,” he said.

The Higgs boson was discovered at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland — the same place where the Internet was developed. The project involved thousands of physicists from 24 different nations working together. During the Higgs boson research, physicists used two machines in order to find it: the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector, which sits about five stories high, and the ATLAS detector, which weighs about the same as the Eiffel Tower, according to CERN webpage.

“To see the littlest things, you need lots of energy,” Deady said.

Because this research took so long to complete, hundreds of the scientists who had been a part of the project did not live to see the fruit of their efforts. The finished results were still dedicated in their names for all that they contributed to the decades-long endeavor.

Deady said the idea of the Higgs boson, in layman’s terms, could be understood as visualizing an average person and a celebrity going to a party together. If the room is full of people, those individuals are going to cluster around the celebrity. That celebrity will continue to interact with people along the way across the room. This is the same scenario with the Higgs boson, as the field around certain objects with more mass will attract more interaction with other particles.

At the roots of the Higgs boson discovery lies continuous scientific progression. In the late 1600s, it was figuring out the basics of thermodynamics that led to the steam engine. More recently in the early 20th century, the work on relativity and quantum theory led to the science behind all of today’s electronics — from cell phones to computers and GPS systems. Though the Higgs boson is more fundamental than a technological advancement, Deady believes it will lead humanity to more discoveries about the universe, other universes, galaxies and dark matter.

“We as a society, as humanity, discover,” Deady said. “Whenever we push the limits of our knowledge, we end up with things that we couldn’t have predicted. When I was [in college], we didn’t have a coherent picture of how things worked smaller than the atom or the nucleus, and now we have managed to string together a model that is self-consistent, works and explains an enormous number of things. I think this is just a testament to human aspiration to understand.”

The next Harrington STEM lecture will take place on Tuesday, April 18 at 5 p.m. in the Coykendall Science Building Auditorium.

This story first appeared in The New Paltz Oracle on March 9, 2017.

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