If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, chances are you’ve heard the term “Higgs Boson.” Chances are, unless you are a nuclear physicist, that you also have very little idea of what it is. The Higgs Boson is a subatomic particle, the existence of which was theorized by Peter Higgs and other researchers way back in 1964, but lacked experimental evidence until very recently. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, however, finding the Higgs Boson has been the Holy Grail of particle physics for the better part of a decade, and was one of the main reasons the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was constructed.
As the news was announced, Professor Higgs wiped a tear from his eye, offering the following understatement: “it’s very nice to be right sometimes.” When he first began work on this theoretical particle, he had no idea whether or not he would be proven right, or if he would even find out within his lifetime. With the announcement of this discovery, there is even talk of awarding Professor Higgs the Nobel Prize. Even Stephen Hawking is impressed.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson is important because our current understanding of physics, known as the Standard Model, relies on its existence. If researchers failed to detect the Higgs Boson, and it was shown to not exist, then we would have to go back to the drawing board and rework our understanding of physics from scratch.
The very nature of the Higgs Boson makes it incredibly difficult to detect. This is the main reason it has taken nearly 50 years to make this discovery. The Higgs only exists for a miniscule fraction of a second before degrading into other particles, and requires so much energy to create that only recently, with the help of the LHC, have researchers been able to generate the high energy particle beams needed.
The Higgs Boson gained the unfortunate nickname “The God Particle” from a 1993 book by physicist Leon M Lederman. Though he wasn’t directly involved in the ongoing research to find the Higgs Boson, the media grabbed hold of Lederman’s sensationalist term and ran with it. This makes it nearly impossible to find an article about the Higgs Boson without some mention of God in the title. And naturally, this has lead to many uninformed individuals claiming that this discovery is proof of God.
Let me state this clearly: the Higgs Boson is not God.
“We don’t call it the ‘God particle,’ it’s just the media that do that,” quipped one researcher. “The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that,” chimed in another. However, little things like accuracy won’t prevent the term from being widely used. “I am the from the media and I’m going to continue calling it that,” responded an unnamed reporter. While the sensationalism surrounding this discovery is likely to overshadow the actual scientific importance in the realm of media, the complex nature of the subject matter will likely keep it safe from obfuscation by less-informed individuals.
This is a huge turning point in our study and understanding of physics. It is a great victory for the Standard Model, which we can now assume with a higher degree of assurance is the correct way to interpret the Universe. Now, with the LHC’s main function fulfilled, we can turn our attention to even more baffling and interesting questions. The next round of theories, experiments, and results will reveal even more fascinating information, and keep physics buffs on the edges of our seats.