The Nobel Prize is awarded to living people, but this year the physics prize could be said to have gone to the world’s most famous subatomic particle, the Higgs Boson, the so-called “God Particle.” In actual fact, the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics went to physicists François Englert of Belguim and Peter W. Higgs of England, who developed the theory—independently of each other—that supported the particle’s existence. A majority of scientists would say that the discovery of the Higgs at CERN has nothing to do, however, with a proof for the existence of God.
This very topic was the subject of a lively discussion on Sunday at the New Yorker Festival, appropriately titled, “The God Particle.” New Yorker writer Michael Specter led a free-wheeling conversation with world-famous physicists Brian Greene (of Columbia), Joseph Incandela (of CERN and UC Santa Barbara), Lawrence M. Krauss (of Arizona State University), and Lisa Randall (of Harvard.) It was quite a raucous display of intellects on one stage, with Greene and Krauss as competing wiseguys (there was a long digression involving CERN misspoken as SPERM which led ineluctably to the Large Hardon Collider observing the Higgs Bosom, etc.)
The collected physicists are nothing, however, compared to the riot of subatomic particles unleashed by the particle accelerator at CERN. Characterized by Incandela as “The most complicated machine that humans have ever built,… these are the gothic cathedrals of the 21st century.” The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been the collaboration of over 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 countries over a decade, from 1998 to 2008. It is a monument both to complexity but also cooperation on an unprecedented scale.
And all of that energy, figuratively and literally, has been used to aim protons at other protons at incredible speeds in order to observe the wreckage of their collision. Particles acquire mass by passing through a field of Higgs bosons, but when this elusive particle is observed and measured it turns out to be 16 orders of magnitude lighter than it would need to be to fully explain all of the mass in the universe. So scientists are left with a big conceptual hole to fill, even as the Higgs itself has solved some vexing existential issues.
Both Randall and Krauss are actively engaged in questions of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that have been conceived as explanations for deficiencies in the Standard Model of particle physics. In a story about Krauss’ work in the ASU News blog, it says that “it is thought that such ‘dark energy’ contributes up to 70 percent of the total energy density in the universe, while observable matter contributes only 2 to 5 percent, with the remaining 25 percent or so coming from dark matter.” Greene has been working on the intersection of string theory and supersymmetry theory, which are also trying to account for all of what’s missing in the universe. It is an open question as to whether the results from CERN debunk notions of supersymmetry since none of these heavy “twin” particles have yet to be observed in conjunction with the Higgs. (The dark matter partner of the Higgs has been named the “Higgsino,” but this sounds more like an Italian brand of disposable diapers than a serious subatomic particle!)
For all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, the Higgs should be a reminder of how complexity nests down to the smallest imaginable constituents of matter. When the LHC comes back on line in 2015, its full power should be able to explore what is called the Grand Unified Scale, which the ASU article describes as, “a scale perhaps 16 orders of magnitude smaller than the size of a proton, at which the three known non-gravitational forces in nature might converge into a single theory.” Could what happens at so small a scale account for all of that “dark” energy and matter? Perhaps a future Nobel laureate will tell us.