Let’s celebrate the search for the ‘God particle’

The attempt to understand the fundamental laws of nature is a project that everyone - not just scientists - is a part of.

It is amazing how, no matter what people’s background, the quest to discover the basic laws of nature that underlie the very fabric of the universe has the capacity to engage the imagination. And what could be more abstract and esoteric than the search for the Higgs boson?

The boson is a particle predicted by Peter Higgs in 1964 in an attempt to explain the inability of the standard model of particle physics to explain a fundamental concept: mass. His explanation for mass predicts a universal forcefield, through which everything must travel, that acts a bit like treacle. The more a particle interacts with the Higgs field, the stickier it becomes and hence the harder to move and so the more massive the particle is. As any quantum field theorist will tell you, with every field comes an exchange particle that transmits the force, hence the Higgs boson. If we find the Higgs, then we have discovered a new law of nature, a new fundamental force which acts on everything in the universe.

The fact that the scientific community has come together over the past 20 to 30 years to both fund and build a laboratory to test out this idea - itself sketched in a couple of sides of A4 - is a testament to our commitment to the scientific endeavour over the postwar period. CERN - the laboratory built 100 metres beneath the Swiss-French border very close to Geneva - is a legacy of the postwar optimism that sought to distance science from the pursuit of national interests.

CERN is a genuinely open scientific community that prides itself on keeping its doors open to anyone who wants to have a look around and wants to share their findings. As the political and economic project of Europe looks dangerously close to collapse, CERN stands out as one of the remaining supranational institutions with any real credibility. Scientists from all over the world have a chance to work there and take part in the project to push fundamental research forwards. This is no mean feat given the closure of the US Fermi Lab earlier this year and the surrendering of the leadership in particle physics to CERN.

But like all complicated projects, the construction and running of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the tool used to search for new matter - was not without its hitches. Last year, during the early stages of readying the accelerator for action, an accident embarrassingly knocked out the LHC for several months, in the full glare of the media. However, now the machine is running well. (You can follow its progress on Twitter or on the free Android app, LHSee.

The recent announcement of the analysis of the current round of data gathering reveals a narrowing down of the search for the Higgs boson to a highly specific region of energy/mass. This narrowed area of search ties in very neatly with the current theoretical predictions of a rest energy of 125-126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) or about 133 times as heavy as a proton, effectively a hydrogen atom. On the other hand, if the data to be collected does not justify this prediction, it seems now very unlikely that the Higgs exists at any other mass. In other words, the current theory is either completely right or completely wrong.

The big argument then is what if we are wrong and the Higgs doesn’t exist? Actually, this result would leave the physics community buzzing with excitement; we would have to think again and re-examine the whole standard model. It might not be as easy to sell to the public and politicians who fund the research, but it would give a new theoretical impetus to particle physics. But like many aspects of fundamental physics research, questions abound. What is lacking is the opportunity to answer the questions that physics poses. The fact that we have put together the most complicated experiment ever undertaken by humanity to answer just such a question is a massive inspiration for a new generation of potential scientists.

Whether we should be worried about the publicity that surrounds the work at CERN or celebrate it is a question that we have no choice about. The demands placed upon the community at CERN to justify the massive expenditure mean that big science like this cannot be done in isolation. But the very openness of the scientists at CERN is an asset that allows people to debate endlessly the meaning of the results.

A good example of this openness and the debate it can engender occurred in September this year. Researchers at an experiment called OPERA - a collaboration between CERN and a group working in the Gran Sasso region of Italy - announced a provisional finding that particles called neutrinos seemed to be travelling faster than light. This news brought Einstein’s work on relativity into the school canteen and staff room at the school where I work in way few would have imagined possible before. And like Einstein, today’s scientists have learned to embrace the media exposure they are given to make substantial careers for themselves.

But what remains after all the dust has settled is that science is not just for scientists. We have all taken a stake in the project to understand the laws of nature that govern our universe. That project has become part of our common cultural heritage at whatever level we choose to engage with it. Science is not just an esoteric pursuit of the few. It is part of our common quest to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. CERN has held up the value of the scientific project in an era when fundamental scientific research is being cut back across the globe. Long may CERN, and the pursuit of such fundamental knowledge, continue.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London and has just launched a campaign for a new Free School called the East London Science School, which aims to open in September 2013. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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