you there, God particle? A physicist makes the search for the
Higgs boson a scientific detective story, writes David L.
Ulin for the Los Angeles Times.
On July 4, 2012, at the Cern laboratory in Geneva - home to
the massive particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron
Collider, or LHC - two groups of physicists announced the
discovery of a new elementary particle, the Higgs boson.
Widely known as ''the God particle'', the Higgs is important,
on the most basic level, for giving other subatomic particles
''The Higgs particle arises from a field pervading space,
known as the Higgs field,'' explains Caltech physicist Sean
Carroll in The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the
Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.
''Everything in the known universe, as it travels through
space, moves through the Higgs field; it's always there,
lurking invisibly in the background.''
As to why this matters, Carroll points out that ''without the
Higgs, electrons and quarks would be massless, just like
photons, the particles of light. They would move at the speed
of light themselves, and it would be impossible to form atoms
and molecules, much less life as we know it ... Without it,
the world would be an utterly different place.''
The Particle at the End of the Universe is a scientific
detective story, the saga of the search for the Higgs. Like
all such stories, it's driven by a fundamental, yet elusive,
mystery: What is the nature of the universe? That, Carroll
believes, is both a matter of philosophy and curiosity, going
back to Aristotle on the one hand, and on the other, to our
ongoing fascination with how reality works.
''Passion for science,'' he writes late in the book,
''derives from an aesthetic sensibility, not a practical one.
We discover something new about the world, and that lets us
better appreciate its beauty.''
This is a key idea, for it suggests a way of thinking about
theoretical physics - even for the non-scientifically minded
- as the search for ''an elegant mechanism ... like being
able to read poetry in the original language, instead of
being stuck with mediocre translation.''
To elaborate, Carroll gives a lot of context: facts and
figures, yes, but also passion, characters, history. He
introduces physicists such as Peter Higgs, from whom the
Higgs boson gets its name, as well as Francois Englert,
Robert Brout, Carl Richard Hagen, Gerald Guralnik and Tom
Kibble, all of whom did ground-breaking work in the early
1960s positing the existence of such a particle -
postulations that took nearly half a century to bear out.
The book also traces the politics and the economics of the
LHC, built with international money and participation.
''Over and over again,'' Carroll writes, ''physicists I
talked to while writing this book spoke ... about how Cern
could serve as a model for large-scale international
One tells him, ''What's amazing to me is that we have people
from 70 countries around the world working - together.
Palestinians and Israelis working side by side, Iranians and
Iraqi scientists work together - such collaboration in the
pursuit of big science shouldn't be overlooked.''
At the same time, Carroll grounds The Particle at the End of
the Universe in the personal, using his childhood interest in
dinosaurs (''I never seriously considered palaeontology as a
career, but every scientist I know secretly agrees that
dinosaurs are the epitome of cool'') to frame what he calls
''the quest for awesome - that literal awe that you feel when
you understand something profound for the first time''.
For Carroll, the point is to make his material accessible, to
open subatomic physics to an audience that might be daunted
otherwise. In that sense, I may be his ideal reader,
interested in the concepts but intimidated by the
calculations and the maths.
And yet, it's Carroll's status as a physicist - an insider,
as it were - that gives The Particle at the End of the
Universe its necessary heft. Were he a journalist or a
science writer, he might tend towards the metaphorical in
explaining the Higgs project. But even though he's not averse
to framing comparisons (''If you're trying to explain
subatomic phenomena,'' he admits, ''the only way to get
compelling images is to reach for an analogy'') he doesn't
want to oversimplify.
That's his issue with the term ''God particle'', which is
really just a metaphor gone wrong. This flashy phrase, coined
by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, refers to ''the singular
role of the Higgs: it's the final part of the Standard Model
of particle physics'', which ''explains everything we
experience in our everyday lives ... it's the full theory of
immediately discernible reality''.
Without the Higgs, there'd be no friction, no essential
tension, nothing for those quarks, neutrinos and electrons to
push against. In that sense, perhaps, it may be most accurate
to call the Higgs boson an animating force, one that
disrupts, or breaks, certain symmetries between particles and
helps create a differentiated world.
Now I'm the one oversimplifying. But the idea is that the
Higgs boson (or more accurately, the Higgs field) represents
a subatomic spark. For Carroll, that's important because it
brings us closer to understanding the universe in which we
''We are part of the universe that has developed a remarkable
ability,'' he observes.
''We can hold an image of the universe in our minds. We are
matter contemplating itself.''
This is as close as the book gets to metaphysics, but it's a
stunning statement just the same. What he's suggesting, after
all, is science as a form of heightened self-discovery, in
which the universe we study is ourselves. Or, as Italian
physicist Fabiola Gianotti, a central player in the Higgs
discovery, puts it: ''Fundamental knowledge is a little bit
like art. It's something very much related to the spirit, the
soul, the brain of men and women as clever beings.''