By Darin L. Hammond
Article first published as Higgs Boson Particle Discovered: Reflections on Explosions on Technorati.
The colorful beauty of pops and booms at the fireworks displays on the 4th brought me back to childhood when the workings of these explosions were mysterious. Not knowing the nature of the fireworks, how they functioned, made them magical and powerful.
The real fireworks on the 4th took place far from the United States where scientific discoveries reported by researchers operating the world’s grandest particle smasher the CERN in Switzerland. Scientists reported that morning on the first observation of the Higgs Boson or “God Particle,” an elusive bit of subatomic matter that they have theorized about since the 1960s. For many, this discovery is among the most important in the history of science, like a dream fulfilled.
A bit of the magic of my youth lies in the scientific power of these subatomic explosions in the 17-mile long CERN particle accelerator where the Higgs Boson was discovered. Magic for humans always exists in the unknown or the incompletely understood. While they, a cautious bunch, do not yet definitively make the claim, the particle discovered behaves like the “God Particle,” they say. In other words, it glues and binds together subatomic particles.
Unlike the fireworks, which are no longer mysterious, the explosions of subatomic particles still represent some of the grandest mysteries for my grown up mind. We move down from the realm of atom, proton, neutron, and electron to the level of quarks, which have no mass, but make up the content of the smallest parts of atoms.
This truly is magic—the particle that joins these quarks together to form the parts of atoms—and scientists have been hunting the tiny bits for over 50 years. The Higgs Boson has mass, and hence the power build and bind subatomic particles, providing the glue, the gravity that enables construction. The God Particle holds everything subatomic together, and without it quarks would simply float, untethered, never to combine. Matter as we know it could not exist.
The CERN Hadron Collider has been the testing ground. In the 17 mile long tunnel, with circular, super conducting magnets are able to suspend subatomic particles in the precise middle of the tunnel, accelerate them beyond the speed of light, collide them, and take images of what comes out of the explosion. Fireworks indeed! Despite countless collisions, the Higgs Boson had not been detected until yesterday. Plenty of quarks, but the most significant particle had been elusive.
The importance of the finding may not be immediately clear. For me, it is enough to understand the basic building blocks of matter, to solve that powerful mystery that nagged at scientists for so long. But there are practical implications as well.
Our new understanding allows for applications such as the cloud systems that operate on our computers. Subatomic research accounts for that amazing storage system, and the potential applications for the new discovery are limitless at this point. This potential sparks a new kind of magic for the layperson like me, fireworks that are yet to be explained.
Realizing that gunpowder and magnesium create explosions in the fireworks does not detract from their beauty. Knowing the existence and function of the Higgs Boson similarly serves to fuel our imagination, adding the power of knowledge to the magic.
The celebratory fireworks at CERN may go unnoticed by the general public for a time, put new technology is bound to emerge. Perhaps forgetting this moment in time that began it all, we will enjoy technology beyond our comprehension. The finding merits a pause and appreciation for what is to come just as the fireworks remind citizens of the United States of our founding. For me always now, the 4th with its red, white, and blue fireworks will be a celebration of our origin as a country and a moment to glory in the origins of our universe.
Watch an awesome TED Talks video that discusses the superconductors that make CERN possible.