Carroll, Sean. The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World. Dutton. [forthcoming; pub date to change.] 304p. ISBN 9780525953593. $26.95. SCIENCE
According to the Standard Model, a set of equations about the fundamental nature of the universe that has dominated science for decades, there must be an unseen force field spreading like hot tar throughout the universe, giving mass to things with which it interacts. Otherwise, everything would be massless, like photons. Since no mass means no gravity, and no gravity means no universe as we know it, we owe a lot to that putative field.
The field was first envisioned in 1964 by six physicists working in three independent groups. One of the physicists, Peter Higgs, also argued that the field must have its own quantum particle (its only manifestation), just as electromagnetic radiation has photons. That particle has long been known as the Higgs boson, a boson being a type of particle that has zero or integral spin.
For decades, physicists have fervently believed in and fervently sought the Higgs boson. But no one had ever detected it‚ until, apparently, now. On July 4, at a much-anticipated Higgs update seminar at CERN, the multinational nuclear research center headquartered in Geneva, it was announced that physicists had discovered a particle that looks to fit the bill.
Two groups of 3000 physicists each‚ Atlas, led by Fabiola Gianotti, and CMS, led by Joe Incandela‚ presented data gleaned from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s biggest energy particle accelerator. Located at its greatest depth at 575 feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border in a circular tunnel that runs 17 miles all round, LHC facilitates massive high-speed atom smash-ups aimed at making the Higgs boson show itself in an anticipated pattern of particle spray before decay quickly sets in.
Hints of the elusive particle began emerging last year, resulting in feverish analysis of literally trillions of proton-proton collisions and, finally, the announcement of the discovery. Both groups confirmed a 1 in 3.5 million chance that what they had perceived was the result of a statistical fluctuation. That’s the so-called five sigma, the threshold for discovery in physics.
Is this new particle the one predicted by the Standard Model? No one can be sure, and no one is committing completely. But it certainly has Higgs-like qualities, and studying it will yield a wealth of information, perhaps wrapping up final questions about the Standard Model, perhaps opening new doors, perhaps explaining why things are vs. aren’t and illuminating the dark matter that underpins the universe.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about the Higgs boson and the remarkable search for its existence, you’re in luck. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology who has been following the Higgs boson search closely‚ so much so that he live-blogged the announcement from Geneva‚ has been hard at work on a book that unfolds the entire project.
Given the ramifications, the excitement among scientists‚ 1000 people lined up to get into the auditorium, where Carroll says a “rock-concert vibe” prevailed‚ and the process itself‚ the LHC took a decade to build and cost nearly $10 billion, with scientists from 100 countries involved‚ this story should be fascinating.
What’s more, Carroll is good as explaining science to lay readers. He’s the author of books like From Eternity to Here and has appeared on the History Channel’s The Universe, the Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and even Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. His book was scheduled for release in January 2013, but the chance that the pub date won’t be pushed up is about 1 in 3.5 million. I’ll keep you posted.