On the Wrongly Called The God Particle

On the Wrongly Called “The God Particle”

[click on title to be redirected to The Standard Times]

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2012

Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

[A book-review format of this article is available at Amazon.com]

“…without mass, no atoms would exist, no galaxies or stars, no solar systems or planets with life, and no brains capable of thinking about it…”

Computer-generated image of a proton-proton collision recorded with the CMS detector at CERN (2012). The data is consistent with the decay of a Higgs-like-boson into photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers). Alternatively, the data could also be explained by background processes consistent with the Standard Model (image credit CMSCERN © 2012).

     Nobel laureate Leon Lederman affirms that the title of his 1993 book “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” offended two groups: those who believe in God and those who do not. But this is another astute –and a posteriori— marketing pronouncement. If true, Lederman and coauthor Dick Teresi, a science writer, would have disappointed 95 percent of all Americans (the 80 percent of believers and the 15 percent of seculars), the book’s initial and major target audience.

     As particle physicist, Lederman’s intention with such an unfortunate and misleading heading –here I don’t only blame the publishers for scrambling science with the supernatural to secure sales— was to precisely reach the populous obsessed with science fiction, more than with science facts, and discuss the potential existence of the Higgs boson (a subatomic particle), which experimental demonstration, as predicted for decades, could bring major understanding to the essence of matter.

     This past 4th of July, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, celebrated with its own “fireworks,” or highly energetic particle collisions, the discovery of a Higgs-like boson generated at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a magnificent underground instrument built to study the fundamental structuring blocks of all things.

     I visited CERN, last year, located nearby Geneva, at the Swiss-Franco border. Its 17-mile circular accelerator speeds up, in opposite directions, subatomic “hadrons,” either hydrogen nuclei or lead ions, which gain energy after consecutive laps. At the instant of collision, scientists recreate the conditions immediately after the Big Bang, resembling the first events in the existence of our 14 billion-year-old universe. CERN is shockingly impressive; its amazing technology and scale of engineering caused me profound joy.

Square Galileo Galilei and THE GLOBE (Visitors Interpretation Center) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, nearby Geneva — Swiss-Franco border (photos G. Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2011).

     Hadron collisions produce short-lasting minuscule particles difficult to detect, and the Higgs boson has been indeed elusive. Its existence was postulated in 1964, in separate articles published in Physical Review Letters by Robert Brout and Francois Englert, Peter Higgs (alone), Gerald Guralnik, Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble. But CERN seems to have found it or, as cautiously announced, “measured the products of its decay,” thus inferring its existence.

  ATLAS control room at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN (photo G. Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2011).

     To help us imagine this day of discovery, or presumption that the Higgs boson is real, in his 1990s book Lederman traces back the history of particle physics to 2,600 years ago; sparkled by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who wondered about the simplest forms of matter, continuing with Democritus of Abdera (c 400 BP), who not only coined the term atom (“uncuttable”) but declared that “…nothing exists except for atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion,” and ending with the 1993 cancellation, by the US Congress, of the Superconducting Super Collider project to be built in Waxahachie, Texas, and which would have surpassed the LHC at CERN with a 54-mile-diameter particle accelerator.


Greek Philosopher Democritus of Abdera (460-370 BP) “…nothing exists except for atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion…” 



     What are Higgs bosons? Remember that atoms consist of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons, both occurring at a nucleus. Electrons cloud around the nucleus and are negatively charged. The entire atom package is kept together by electromagnetic forces. If a nucleus of hydrogen –the simplest known element which is essentially a proton— is accelerated and rammed against another proton an explosion occurs, which liberates subatomic particles. Physicists rely on a body of scientific knowledge, called the Standard Model, to theorize and explore experimentally –currently at CERN— the properties of such subatomic particles.

     About 60 of these particles have been hypothesized and/or documented to exist, and scientists classify them as bosons, hadrons and fermions (for technical terminology visit CERN’s Glossary). The Higgs is a boson and a crucial one to understand the properties of other elementary particles, for example, why some have mass and others, like the photons (components of light) don’t. Without mass, no atoms would exist, no galaxies or stars, no solar systems or planets with life, and no brains capable of thinking about it. (Note, however, that Higgs-like particles are expected to account for only a fraction of the total mass of the universe). CERN asserts that the characterization of Higgs will provide “the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model” and guide us in the comprehension of the forces acting at the microscopic core of nature.

Elementary subatomic particles (top: bosons, hadrons, fermions) and their interactions (bottom); source Public Domain.

     As for Lederman’s book (I belong to the 15 percent of seculars who detest its heading and insertions of subliminal mysticism into the facts), the prose offers an enjoyable ride, rich in historicity, sarcastic humor –rare for a physicist— and fantasizing dialogs with Democritus, Lederman’s imaginary physics peer. And to poise Lederman’s enlightenment about particle physics and its ramifications to modern cosmology with the views of one of his contemporary elementary-particles colleagues, I recommend reading Victor Stenger’s “God: The Failed Hypothesis” (2008), “Quantum Gods” (2009), and the latest “God And the Folly of Faith” (2012). – © 2012 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

Above, some of the books authored by Dr. Victor Stenger: “God: The Failed Hypothesis” (2008), “Quantum Gods” (2009), and “God And the Folly of Faith” (2012).