Image: A plot of Tevatron (Fermilab) data sho
Discovery, At Last?
July 3, 2012 --
It seems that the Higgs boson just keeps bringing out the crazy in people. As we get closer and closer to cornering the secretive particle, there's been no shortage of myths, rumors and just downright odd (yet physically sound) theories to add some entertaining sideshows to the proceedings. So, this week, physicists who are working tirelessly with CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, have a big announcement. But will it be
announcement we've all been waiting for? In typical quantum physics style, a
discovery announcement will be unlikely -- but we are slowly, yet surely, closing in on the particle's hiding place. While we wait for that precious "5-sigma" result, here are some peculiar Higgs stories and odd boson facts that have entertained, mystified and confused us ever since the LHC revved up its superconducting magnets.
Credit: Delta Publishing
Not the "God Particle" Let's get this crime of physics out of the way first. The hunt for the Higgs boson has nothing to do with God. The Higgs is not a divine entity; it is a gauge boson -- i.e. it is a particle that mediates mass and therefore endows all matter with (you guessed it) mass. (And no, that's not mass as in "religious service mass;" it's mass, a "property of matter mass.") So why the heck do we see, with alarming regularity, the "God Particle" reference plastered across every tabloid newspaper? Ever since Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi gave the elusive particle the tongue-in-cheek moniker in their 1993 book "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?" mainstream media grabbed hold of the nickname as if physicists were looking for The Almighty himself. Alas, the hunt for the Higgs has nothing to do with God, but it is a critical step forward in our understanding of what gives all matter in the Universe its mass. Of course, if the tabloid press mentions the "God Particle" as an ironic or sarcastic reference, that's fine. Physicists have a sense of humor too.
There's a Higgs Family?! In 2010, physicists at the DZero collaboration at Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator came up with an interesting proposition: What if there are actually five different types of Higgs bosons? Perhaps old Higgsy has a mom, dad and twin sisters! Known as the "two-Higgs doublet model," the mere hint that there may be more Higgs particles to hunt down will likely make any particle physicist sweat, but it would explain some of the strange science results coming from the DZero collaboration. According to Discovery News' Jennifer Ouellette, this has potential implications for the "God Particle" misinterpretation: "Along with many physicists, I hate the term 'god particle' to describe the Higgs," says Ouellette. "Fermilab's Leon Lederman coined the term over a decade ago, and it's been misleading innocent civilians ever since into thinking physicists are trying to prove or disprove the existence of god or something. But it did give the blog 80 Beats the best line yet about these new results: 'If the Higgs boson is the God Particle, then some particle physicists just turned polytheistic.'"
Credit: Test Tube Games
It Has An App Like everything else in the Universe, the Higgs particle has its own app. Naturally, LHC physicists are the villains of the game and you have to use other Standard Model particles to hide the Higgs from detection. You may not need a Ph.D. to play the game, but a vague understanding of quantum particles might help.
Image: The massive CMS detector in the LHC. C
God Hates It It seems that the longer a particle evades detection, the more stir-crazy some scientists become. This may not be an established law of physics, but it certainly seems to be the case for one distinguished physicist who, in 2009, published a lighthearted paper about why the Higgs is so difficult to find. The upshot: God hates the Higgs boson. What's with all the 'God' references? In a nutshell, as the Higgs boson can transmit a signal back in time when it is created by a particle accelerator, this signal will ultimately sabotage the accelerator before the thing has even been built. Nature, and therefore "God," doesn't want old Higgsy to see the light of day. Dennis Overbye of the New York Times summarized the situation quite nicely: "...the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one."
Image: A simulation of the production and dec
It's a Time-Traveling Assassin Reading like the plot of Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1994 movie "Timecop," the Higgs boson's time-traveling capabilities may be used for evil. Yes, it could go back in time to kill your grandfather. Or, at least, a signal utilizing the Higgs' time-traveling capabilities could be used to send a signal back in time to an assassin who is waiting for the signal to start a killing spree. Actually, that might really be the sequel to Timecop. This time-traveling Higgs theory was thought up by Vanderbilt University theoretical physicists Tom Weiler and Chui Man who admit their idea "is a long shot," but it "doesn't violate any laws of physics." Yay physics! Based on the theory that when a Higgs particle is generated a Higgs "singlet" particle is also generated at the same time, this singlet can utilize the "fifth dimension" of spacetime to zip through time and travel into the past. According to Weiler and Man's calculations, this could allow a Higgs singlet signal to be sent back in time, and could therefore be used for all kinds of freaky shenanigans.
It's a Social Media Superstar It may come as no surprise that the Higgs boson has become something of a celebrity. Even though the vast majority of the public have no clue what the Higgs boson actually is, the hypothetical particle has become more popular than Lindsey Lohan and, for a time, was a trending topic alongside Lady Gaga and... Santa. True story. As we've already mentioned, the myth of the Higgs has often been a little more exaggerated than the truth, so in the spirit of "going viral," old Higgsy had its own meme on Twitter. Using the hashtag #HiggsRumors, hundreds of Higgs fans -- evidently exacerbated by the flurry of half-truths and rumored discoveries -- invented their own rumors about the elusive particle. It all began when @drskyskull tweeted: "I hear the Higgs boson once shot a man just to watch him die. #HiggsRumors" The rest, as they say, is social media history.
CERN is expected to make its announcement about the possible Higgs boson confirmation on July 3. For updates, keep an eye on Discovery News and the @Discovery_Space Twitter feed.
MORE ARTICLES BY IAN O'NEILL
It’s funny when two seemingly distant theories conspire to destroy the universe.
This may seem a little far fetched, but if our understanding of the physics behind the recently-discovered Higgs boson (or, more specifically, the Higgs field — the ubiquitous field that endows all stuff with mass) is correct, our universe shouldn’t exist. That is, however, if another cosmological hypothesis is real, a hypothesis that is currently undergoing intense scrutiny in light of the BICEP2 results.
You may have heard about the controversy surrounding a certain telescope located near the South Pole. The BICEP2 telescope was built with one purpose in mind: to detect a specific type of polarized light being emitted by cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. In short, BICEP2 announced (perhaps prematurely) that they had detected this B-mode polarization, indicating the presence of gravitational waves. For these waves to be embedded in the CMB, one key hypothesis of the origin of the universe may be valid.
The hypothesis is called “cosmological inflation” and this model helps cosmologists explain many tricky questions about how our universe was formed.
But according to a group of British cosmologists, inflation really throws a wrench (a.k.a. “a spanner”) into the Cosmic engine — if the physics behind the recently discovered Higgs boson are solid, the rapid inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago would have thrown our early universe into chaos.
In fact, things would have gotten so out of hand within the first second of our universe’s creation that we shouldn’t even be here — the universe would have collapsed — known, unsurprisingly, as the “Big Crunch” — into nothing even before matter could condense out of the Big Bang’s primordial mess of energy.
In research presented today (Tuesday) at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth, UK, Malcolm Fairbairn and Robert Hogan of King’s College London (KCL) discussed the implications of recent discoveries in particle physics and the origins of our universe. Their conclusions will likely cause some unrest.
Since the discovery of a Higgs-like boson by Large Hadron Collider (LHC) physicists in 2012, further studies and data analysis has proven that this particular boson really is the Higgs boson — a subatomic particle that mediates the Higgs field. The Higgs field is believed to fill the entire known universe and endows all matter with mass. Since its discovery, physicists have been getting up-close and personal with the Higgs and experimental analyses has not only proven its existence, scientists are also becoming very familiar with the boson’s (and, by extension, the field it exchanges) properties.
But the problem with the Higgs field is that, if given enough energy, it has the power to reverse cosmic expansion and create a Big Crunch.
The mathematics to arise from accepted Higgs field theory suggests the universe is currently sitting comfortably in a Higgs field energy “valley.” To get out of this valley and up the adjacent “hill” (as shown in the energy diagram, right), huge quantities of energy would need to be unleashed inside the field. But, if there were enough energy to push the universe over the hill and into the deeper energy valley next door, the universe would simply, and catastrophically, collapse.
This is where the BICEP2 results come in. If their observations are real and gravitational waves in the CMB prove cosmological inflation, the Higgs field has already been kicked by too much energy, pushing the Higgs field over the energy hill and deep into the neighboring valley’s precipice! For any wannabe universe, this is very bad news — the newborn universe would appear as a Big Bang, the Higgs field would become overloaded with an energetic inflationary period, and the whole lot would vanish in a blink of an eye.
“This is an unacceptable prediction of the theory because if this had happened we wouldn’t be around to discuss it,” said Hogan.
This is a fascinating insight as to how studies of the quantum world can have impacts on a cosmological scale and the outcome of this research could be another kick in the teeth for the BICEP2 findings. But there is another exciting implication if the BICEP2 observations are proven to be correct and provides much-needed evidence for inflation.
“If BICEP2 is shown to be correct, it tells us that there has to be interesting new particle physics beyond the standard model,” added Hogan.
Exotic, or “new,” physics is currently being hunted down by high-energy physicists at the LHC and other institutions around the world to help explain some of the biggest conundrums in science. For example, physicists are trying to understand how gravity ‘fits’ with the Standard Model (because, right now, it doesn’t), what dark matter is and why the universe is more matter than antimatter. Perhaps there are supersummetric particles that exist at higher energies than we can currently observe, meddling with our known quantum world in very subtle ways.
Many avenues of “new physics” studies have been closed by the Standard Model that continues to be a reliable “recipe book” for particle physics, but some odd glimpses give physicists hope that our universe is hiding physics that we cannot fully grasp, yet.
So, if BICEP2′s observations are real and Higgs boson theory continues to strengthen, perhaps theorists will be buoyed-up in the knowledge that something else — something exotic — prevented cosmological inflation from collapsing the universe back down to a dot. Might there be another mechanism that counteracts the Higgs field’s universe-killing potential?
For now, this remains an open question, but fortunately for us, we’re here asking these big questions, so something isn’t quite adding up.