Higgs is back in the news. And for the good reasons. We have had confirmation that the elusive particle has been spotted in the earth-shattering experiments at CERN. This is an achievement that will go down in history as one of the greatest. Why should this be the case? What is so important about this particle that it’s gathered so much media attention and, more importantly, so much dedication from scientists and technicians working so hard at CERN? I have already written about this in my blog called, simply, Higgs. Here I will expand on this and explain what this discovery means for us. First, for those who need an introduction to Higgs, let me recapitulate what it is all about.
All of matter, as far as we can tell, is composed of four fundamental pieces: the up quark, the down quark, the electron and the electron neutrino. Four particles which, when combined in a certain configuration, make up all of matter as we know it. The water that flows in our rivers, the air and wind blowing over the Amazon forest, the grains of sand in the Sahara desert, the fish in the oceans, the house we dwell in, this planet we’re born on and all the galaxies in our universe are made up of those four particles. The question is: where from or how do these particles gain their masses? Why should the up quark be considerably more massive than the electron? Where does this thing called mass come from? This most fundamental of conundrum has finally been answered and asserted by the discoveries at the CERN laboratories. We have found this ‘thing’ which gives everything else their respective masses. This ‘thing’ is what we call the Higgs boson. A boson is just a technical term associated with a certain type of entity. Just like we name certain objects ‘chair’ and others ‘cup’, in the physics of matter we name certain particles ‘hadron’ and others ‘boson’, for example. They represent different types of particles with different properties. So, how important is the discovery of the Higgs boson to us? How relevant is it that we have pinned down the particle that gives mass to all the fundamental particles? Besides the obvious fact that without mass there is no stuff and therefore the discovery of the Higgs boson is quite significant in that aspect, how else is this discovery meaningful?
Remember when we discovered the electron? No? That was about 116 years ago. None of us using the internet today will have any recollection of this event. Yet, it would have been impossible, back then in 1896, to imagine that the discovery of this tiniest of particles will one day lead to the advent of electronics and eventually computers and the internet itself. What it has done, however, is open the doors to yet many more theories and discoveries which, over merely a century, has completely changed the face of the world. Electronic components, devices and gadgets are almost ubiquitous, whether in the form of radio and television sets, mobile phones or microwave ovens. Wherever you go, you will undoubtedly come across a device which is dependent on electronics and therefore on the physics of how electrons behave. This is one simple example. The same can be said about the discovery of the effect of magnets on electricity. It can be dismissed as an interesting piece of gimmickry but its applications are vast and its contribution to the technological advancement of the society is unquantifiable. To take yet another example, let’s consider Einstein’s theory of relativity (both the special and general one). If we had stuck to its purely theoretical aspect and only marvelled at its intrinsic elegance as a theory then we would find it hard to appreciate that a device as popular as the satellite navigation system (satnav, for short) would not have been possible had we not applied his ideas to resolve very practical problems. To accurately locate one’s position from satellites orbiting our planet at thousands of kilometres of altitude, one has to take into account the effects of time ticking at a different pace for those satellites relative to our vehicles. These effects are described exquisitely in Einstein’s theory and allow us to ensure the accuracy of our navigation systems. (For more on this, please read my blog on Science.)
The relevance of a scientific discovery might not be immediately apparent. It might take a generation or centuries even before we appreciate its full-fledged importance. What we must learn from the past inventions and discoveries is that their contribution to society cannot be measured in numbers and cannot have a price-tag on. We might be investing billions of dollars and decades of hard work in a laboratory experiment but the payoff is truly priceless. Experiments being carried out at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to try and unravel the true fabric of the universe involve massive investments both in terms of financial costs and years of labour. Besides the discovery of the Higgs boson, numerous other discoveries and ideas have sprouted (either directly or indirectly) from CERN. To dismiss such experiments as being expensive or irrelevant is to be shortsighted.
Who knows what is in store for humanity in the laboratories and research centres across the world? The Higgs boson is the latest in a long line of history-making discoveries that lay down the paths to yet unexplored territories and new fields of research. One thing is for sure, the universe in all its complexity is far simpler than it appears to be. Just think of it: everything there is in the universe, from ants, plants, planets, stars, to gigantic galaxies, everyone and everything is connected and made up of four simple ingredients. And that which bestows mass upon all of matter is the humble Higgs boson.