A blog about science and movies.
It was an exciting week for the scientific community as physicists at CERN in Geneva announced that they may have discovered the Higgs boson, an elusive particle first theorized in 1964. The boson is key to understanding how mass exists in the Universe and finding it has been one of the primary focuses for thousands of researchers working the $10 billion facility in Switzerland for the last two years.
Two places that explain the project and the particle in depth, this excellent article in the New York Times and this delightful digital comic featuring a physicist who works at CERN.
There has been plenty of debate surrounding the particle collider and the research done there. Some have decried its expense (in 1993 the U.S. Congress turned down building what would have been an even larger supercollider here in the states), others have called the research “dangerous,” and the battle lines have been drawn in the age-old debate between science and the existence of God. Some have even called it “pseudoscience,” claiming that the Standard Model fudges its predictions to fit the discovery of new particles. Scrolling through the comments of any article written on the topic yields both congratulations and condemnations. (It’s interesting to note that the moniker “God particle” that has been ascribed to the Higgs boson was not an attempt to justify or disprove the existence of God, it was simply shortened from “goddamn particle” since it was so difficult to pin down.)
The July 4 announcement is an important step in winning the PR battle for science, however, even as CERN researchers caution that there is still a possibility the particle isn’t the boson they were looking for. If these findings (which they’ve been attempting to confirm as the Higgs since two teams observed them last December) are a different particle, it could open doors to new rooms of physics yet unknown to science.
The “rock concert” atmosphere that surrounded the announcement serves to energize the world-wide scientific community and that excitement is permeating its way into the general public. Even if people don’t understand anything about the Higgs boson, they can tell something historic has happened. It reminded me of when the Human Genome Project completed its goals two years ahead of schedule or when the Mars Pathfinder first returned images from the Martian surface. Moments like this are vital to keep scientific progress moving forward by keeping the research in the public eye. The more heated the debate it generates, the more it pushes the limits of what we know and understand, the more questions it will answer – and raise – about the world around us. Discovery of the Higgs boson will not close the book on theoretical physics, it will merely turn the page to new and exciting discoveries in the future.