On July 4th, 2012, scientists announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called “God Particle,” which helps explain why matter has mass. UVU physics professor Steve Wasserbaech has worked on experiments that lead to this breakthrough.
While the development is groundbreaking, the nickname is leading to misconceptions of the particle’s role in science.
After decades of research, scientists working within the European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN, found the last piece missing from the standard model of particle physics, the Higgs boson. CERN is a nuclear physics research laboratory stationed in Geneva, Switzerland.
Professor Wasserbaech had the opportunity to work on multiple particle physics experiments at CERN and currently serves as an editor for peer-review journals for the organization.
“The discovery of the Higgs particle implies that the universe is filled with a Higgs field, which is responsible for giving particles their masses,” Wasserbaech said. “I think that’s a direct explanation of what’s happened.”
According to Wasserbaech, scientists have a good understanding of what particles are in the universe and how they interact. Research shows different particles have different masses, but scientists have not been able to give a definite explanation for varied mass levels in particles.
In 1964, a group of scientists, including a man named Peter Higgs, hypothesized an explanation for where mass comes from. This theory centered on a hypothetical field known as the “Higgs Field.”
A particle’s interaction with this field varies. Particles with high mass would interact more strongly with the field than low mass particles.
The theory is great, but Wasserbaech said scientists have not been able to show evidence for the proposed Higgs Field. He explained that by finding the Higgs particles, scientists are now able to provide indirect evidence for the field’s existence.
“Since we have now observed a kind of Higgs particle, we know there is a Higgs field,” said Wasserbaech. “We can now be confident that the explanation of mass for all other particles is their interaction with the Higgs Field.”
The Higgs boson is often called the “God Particle,” a term first used in Nobel prize-winning Leon Lederman’s book “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” The nickname has been met with criticism among scientists for its tendency to sensationalize the concept of the particle.
“I think it’s turned out to be a big disaster that it’s called that,” said Wasserbaech. “The general public, as a result, has the completely wrong idea of what’s happened. I’ve heard various questions or statements about what people think this particle is, it’s miles off. It’s not the particle that’s responsible for the Big Bang.”
This discovery will help scientists as they continue to explore how the universe functions, though the immediate practical applications this will have in society are unclear.
History shows that scientific breakthroughs often lead to new concepts that become a part of our daily lives. Particle physicists that created the World Wide Web in an effort to share information more conveniently.
“A few hundred years ago people were doing experiments with electricity and magnetism, just to understand how those things worked,” said Wasserbaech. “They couldn’t have conceived of the GPS or VCR. They didn’t try to justify what they were doing based off practical application. We continue that tradition now. Probably down the line, these discoveries will help somehow.”
However immediate application for scientific purposes are stemming from Higgs boson research.
“By learning about particle physics and the composition of matter, we can contribute to medical technologies,” said Wasserbaech. “There are lots of American graduates at CERN who are getting training from this research and will take their knowledge into different fields.”
By Alex Gee