Where's My iHiggs?
If we could manipulate the Higgs field, might we see exotic technologies that we've barely imagined in science fiction?iStockPhoto
— Research on Higgs boson particle theoretically opens the door for new technologies.
— Manipulating the Higgs field, believed to give subatomic particles their mass, is currently beyond our capabilities.
— Heating a field, for example, would destroy particles before they could convert to energy.
A century after Albert Einstein came up with his theories of relativity, a constellation of Global Positioning System satellites is orbiting Earth, making practical use of his ground-breaking understanding of time.
If the discovery of the Higgs boson particle pans out, will even more mind-bending technologies result?
It's theoretically possible, says Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, but practically, unlikely.
"If you could manipulate the Higgs field locally, you'd have a great Star Trek device. You could make objects disappear. It'd be a great weapon, a great magic trick — if you could put things back together again," Krauss told Discovery News.
But how to tweak the field, believed to be responsible for giving matter its substance?
"It's possible if you were able to heat up some region to something like a billion, billion, billion degrees, then in that region, the Higgs field would probably go away. Of course, by the time you heated things up to a billion, billion, billion degrees, everything would be gone anyway," Krauss said.
Consider the Star Trek transporter, a staple of science fiction for converting matter into energy, beaming it at the speed of light to a new locale, then re-assembling the bits into their previous form.
Theoretically, manipulating a Higgs field would be one way to turn a person into energy and make them "disappear." The hard part would be putting them back together again.
"The only reason why the particles around us, and that make us up, are bound is because of the Higgs field," Krauss said. "They have mass. If the Higgs field were to go away, then the particles would all of a sudden move at the speed of light.
"If I could manipulate a Higgs field, that would be a first step in making a transporter, but the only way I know of to manipulate the Higgs field is to heat the whole thing up to such an incredible temperature that it's not surprising you'd disappear anyway," he said.
Time travel is another theoretical prospect.
"If you were able to manipulate a Higgs field over a large region so that it had energy, it would be gravitationally repulsive. It would cause that region of the universe to accelerate and move things apart faster than light, which is pretty neat," Krauss said.
Scientists believe a similar scenario is what happened early in the universe's history.
"The existence of Higgs makes it clear that you can get something from nothing. A Higgs field can produce space and time itself," Krauss said. "But it's hard to imagine a Higgs technology."
Turning Einstein's theories into practical use with GPS was different because engineers didn't have to manipulate gravity, just understand it.
GPS works by precisely measuring the time it takes for signals from various satellites to reach a receiver. The satellite clocks, however, freed from Earth's gravity, are physically moving faster than clocks on the planet's surface.
"Without the proper application of relativity, GPS would fail in its navigational functions within about two minutes," physicist Clifford Will, now with the University of Florida, wrote in an article titled "Einstein's Relativity and Everyday Life," posted on the American Physical Society website.
The beauty of the Higgs research, added Krauss, is that it just explains why we are here.
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