The wires are a-buzz with the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson….or something. Scientists at CERN, working with the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle smasher in Switzerland, announced today that they have confirmed the discovery of a particle within the Giga-electron Volt range (GeV) predicted by theoretical models of the Higgs particle, but are not in a position to yet say that what they found is actually the Higgs. I thought this would be a good opportunity to give my readers a brief overview of what’s going on and why it’s important.
One of the greatest mysteries still confronting physics is how such an incredibly ordered universe emerged from the chaos of the Big Bang. Imagine a sealed box filled with air. The highly active nature of atoms in a gaseous state causes them to move around vigorously and continuously collide with each other, breaking up any kind of structure as it begins to form. This is what’s known as a highly disordered state, and is actually the most probable state of matter. Now imagine that for no apparent reason, all the oxygen atoms in the box withdraw from the other gases and collect in one corner. We now have order and structure in the box defined by the border between the pocket of oxygen and all the other gases. But this is a highly improbable state of matter, especially with the lack of any mechanism within the box to effect such a ordered separation. Yet this is exactly what happened in the early universe. Against all probability, the chaotic cosmic soup of energetic particles began to form distinct patterns of order and structure that led to the highly organized universe we now see. So, just as in our box of air, there had to be some causal mechanism that would drive this formation of structure. Otherwise, you’d have to consider that something external to the universe imposed its order onto reality and shaped these early structures like the hand of Newton’s Creator or Aristotle’s Prime Mover.
The early universe posed an additional challenge to the emergence of this improbable order. The particles in the primitive soup of the Big Bang were zipping around space at the speed of light. At this velocity, particles cannot form the kinds of stable bonds needed to establish persistent ordered structures. Something had to impart mass to these whizzing lightspeed particles so that enduring subluminal (below the speed of light) orderly structures could be assembled from them.
Enter the Higgs boson, named after theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who popularized the idea in the 1960s. To understand the Higgs, it’s easier to focus more on what it does than what it is. According to the Standard Model (SM) of the universe, which is the model physicists use to describe all particles, forces and their interactions, there must be a component that imparts mass to other particles. According to the theory proposed by Peter Higgs and others, this mass-imparting component takes the form of a field through which other particles pass and in doing so acquire mass. Such a mechanism fills a critical gap in the SM, and would be an important step toward explaining a material cause behind universal order as opposed to a divine one, hence the nickname ‘God’ particle first coined by physicist Leon Lederman (a term most physicists dislike and rarely use but one that is trumpeted constantly by the press for its sensational, attention-getting quality). The particle or ‘quantum’ represented by this field (just as an electron is a particulate form of the electromagnetic force) is the Higgs boson.
Bosons are fundamental or elementary particles from which larger, compound particles are built like protons or hadrons. While bosons cannot be directly observed, their decay trails can be detected by smashing compound particles at high velocities. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is capable of smashing apart hadrons, hence the collider’s name. The more powerful the collider, the more violent collisions can be made that disintegrate a particle more thoroughly, and so the more fragments of that compound particle can be observed and more clearly. Physicists can deduce from these decay trails a number of characteristics of the particles that produces them including their mass, which is expressed in electron volts.
Back to the Higgs. According to the mathematical models of the mass-endowing Higgs field, the Higgs boson should have a mass somewhere between 115 to 150 Giga-electron volts (GeV), although one physicist placed it as high as 130 to 230. The particle reported discovered by the LHC has a mass of 125 GeV, which is in the predicted range. So, why are the CERN scientists holding back from conclusively declaring that the discovered particle is actually THE Higgs boson?
I applaud them for this honesty, because there is a tremendous amount of pressure on these scientists to confirm one of the primary goals to justify the $10 billion poured into the LHC project. Here’s the problem—the ones that you won’t find in any of these mainstream media articles because they rain on the sensationalism parade. Back in the summer and early fall of 2011, CERN was reporting a very pessimistic outlook on finding the Higgs. Why? It’s about the mass. At a particle mass of around 135 GeV or higher, the Higgs field should perform as predicted. CERN had already exhausted their search at that ideal range, and found nothing. Then Higgs news out of CERN fell silent until December 2011, when suddenly they did an about-face and reported finding strong evidence of the Higgs, but this time at 125 GeV. There are two serious problems at this mass. For one, there’s real doubt among physicists that a standalone Higgs field at this low mass would the necessary stability to perform its mass-producing act without the agency of another as yet unknown stabilizing companion particle.
The second problem is more vexing, and the one you never hear about. Unlike other elementary particles, calculations based on the SM yield the paradoxical result that the mass of the Higgs boson should be infinity! While this value can be encountered during calculations in physics, there is always a mitigating factor in the equation that brings it back into the realm of physical reality (since nothing in the physical realm can have a value of infinity).
So what is it that was expected to modify the mass of the Higgs into a physically realistic value? Supersymmetry. This theory, proposed in the 1960s to repair certain problems with the SM, states that all elementary particles have a heavier twin or symmetrical particle. Because of the power of the LHC, evidence for these supersymmetry particles was already to have been easily discovered at that facility. But no trace of these heavier twins has been uncovered by CERN. Moreover, these particles were also to unravel the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. Articles are already appearing in science journals discussing the likely demise of the supersymmetry model. Without supersymmetry, we have no available components that will mitigate the mathematics to cause the Higgs field to behave as advertised or for the Higgs boson to not have an impossible infinite mass at 125 GeV.
There are other flies in the ointment. A SM completed with the Higgs boson would still not have an expression for gravity. Furthermore, a SM completed with the Higgs and nothing else in the form of a new discovery would leave physics without a good path to work out many of the other enigmas that the SM does not solve. It would be like being taken to the dance, having a wonderful time, and then be left stranded there without a ride home.
So this is why the CERN physicists have a new particle discovery in hand with a mass in the correct range, but cannot say for certain if it will ultimately prove to have the characteristics of the now-notorious Higgs boson, or even if they can conclusively demonstrate that it is indeed the Higgs without making further discoveries of even more elusive and possibly non-existent exotic particles.
And so, as the late Paul Harvey famously said at the close of each episode of his radio news program, “Now you know the rest of the story.”