OK, it’s not quite my birthday, but close enough.
(And it’s not a bosun, as the reporter on ABC News pronounced it. Getting a bosun for my birthday would be just creepy).
I’m just listening live online to the press conference from the conference at CERN, where the big news is that the Higgs Boson has been discovered. Well, almost – it’s being described as a Higgs-like boson. It’s likely to be the fabled particle, but requires further investigation to measure its properties to confirm it.
What is all the fuss about?
Without going into the technical details, our knowledge of the fundamental makeup of the natural world is based on the Standard Model. This model comprises a bunch of particles of various types, which when combined in certain ways gives us the matter and energy we see around us. The model has been exceedingly successful – being able to make predictions about new particles which would be found. And the final hold-out has been the Higgs. This particle completes the jigsaw puzzle, and confirms that a property called ‘super-symmetry’ is a good description of the make-up of our universe. However, the Higgs is not just another particle – it is the means by which all other particles have the property of mass. In a nutshell, the Higgs is actually a field with which other particles interact to gain mass. Without it, there’s a huge hole in our understanding of the universe.
And that’s why the scientists are celebrating. Not only has it plugged a major hole in our understanding, but it has been a triumph in a large number of fields – physics, engineering, mathematics, computing and so on, and of course relied on the construction of the Large Hadron Collider. As one of the panelists at the press conference put it:
“This is a profound thing: we are reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we have never done before. We are on the frontier and ready to move forward”
The more general issue which excites me is that this is another fantastic example of science at work: investigations over years have gradually built the standard model, a theory which has been tested over and over for decades. As the model grew, the Higgs was predicted. And finally found. And not just found by one researcher saying ‘trust me’. It was done by two separate teams, starting from completely different points, and then comparing results at the end. One of the panelists at the press-conference just described this as ‘co-ompetition’, which is a great word for the competitive but collaborative work done by the science community. There was competition by the teams to process data, but there was also huge collaboration across the globe doing ‘grid computing’ – without which the huge amounts of data could not have been processed so soon.
A curious feature of the press-conference however is that Peter Higgs himself is present, but is not talking. When pressed to say something, saying it was not the time. This is a bit curious, and will hopefully be explained in due course.
Anyway, this may sound a little garbled, because I’m listing to the press-conference as I write. Perhaps a more well-considered article will follow in due course.
In the mean time, happy almost-maybe-Higgs day.