Friday, 16 December 2011

Steve Investigates – The Higgs Boson (The God Particle)

The Large Hadron Collider.

Confused by the Higgs Boson? Allow Steve to explain. Let there be light.

Like everyone else I’ve been cheered mightily by the news that particle physicists in Switzerland may have found the Higgs Boson, or God Particle, and it only took £6,000,000,000 pounds and 100-mile long tunnel to do it as well. According to scientists, if they find the Higgs Boson it will tell us a lot about what binds the galaxies together, so maybe George Lucas isn’t as big a massive beardy cockhammer as he seems.

And because of this momentous scientific discovery I thought I’d try and get my head around what a Higgs Boson actually is, I’m doing this for two reasons, A) I was a bit bored and B) I suppose if people are making a big deal of the thing I should at least try to understand what the thing is and why it’s important.

Now, I’m not a particle physicist, that’s fairly obvious and probably not a staggering revelation, but if someone speaks slowly enough and leaves the maths out of their explanation I can sort of get my head around what a physicist might be talking about. The biggest problem is that most of the particle physicists that do sort of understand the way the universe is built, or at least what it’s made from are a little bit vague on the details of what they know. They use a lot of phrases like “our best guess is” and, because physicists have only been looking inside atoms since the very end of the 19th century, they aren’t really sure or in complete agreement as to what’s going on in the big black bit outside of our atmosphere or what any of it’s made of.

The problem that physicists have is that space is really big and Humans have only been evolved, super-sentient beings for a tiny fraction of the time that it’s been in existence. This means that the physicists are working backwards while at the same time trying to make sense of now.

DNA, it makes for a shit slinky!
Most of what we know about life, the universe and everything else, we’ve learnt in the last 200 or so years. In that time we’ve learnt about the origins of life on Earth, that we share an common ancestor with all other living things on Earth, that we’re all made of DNA, that we share those DNA strands with ducks, tigers, water lilies, emperor penguins, chrysanthemums, fruit bats and all other living creatures but the way the DNA strands are arranged tells us that we are Humans and not ducks, tigers, water lilies or whatever else. We’ve also discovered that the Earth is over 6 billion years old, that light (but not sound) travels through a vacuum, that the atom isn’t the smallest thing in the universe and that gravity is a constant thing throughout the Universe and explains all we know about the origins of the Universe.

Except it’s not necessarily so, because for a long time Einstein’s theory that was supposed to bind the galaxy together was flawed, because it didn’t make sense with what was commonly understood to be the case. It also seems likely that Newton’s theory of gravity isn’t quite true as well. It could be that gravity wasn’t always the same force it was, but we just don’t know, all we know is that the theory works now.

The problem that physicists have is that Dark Matter makes up a lot of what the Universe is made of, Dark Matter are the particles that make everything, some of it is joined together to make you, me, Earth, Saturn and all other things in the Universe and some of it is just floating around in space.

Moby, Dick?
That song, We Are All Made Of Stars, is sort of right, because Stars are made of the same things that make us. We’re made of atoms, cars are made of atoms, water is made of atoms, the moon is made of atoms and so on and so forth. The problem with all of that is that physicists estimate that the Universe is only about 4% Dark Matter, so what else is out there filling up the other 96% and keeping things moving around in the orderly fashion that they do?

That’s where the Higgs Boson comes in, and what the lovely chaps at CERN are doing with the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs Boson is an as yet theoretical particle that is supposed to glue all of the other stuff together. An atom has mass, but it is doesn’t have very much stuff inside it. Most of the inside of atoms is supposedly empty space, an atom has tiny particles inside it that whizz about a nucleus and the electrons. The positively charged particles that whizz around the nucleus inside an atom define what the atom is and what the thing itself is. Hydrogen, the lightest element has one electron whizzing around inside the atom, Uranium, the heaviest has 92 electrons whizzing around inside the atom, and the all of the rest of the stuff that makes up the known elements that all things in the Universe must be have an atomic weight, or number, in-between those two elements that occupy positions at either end of the periodic table. Ernest Rutherford worked all of this out 100 years or so ago.

But the nucleus inside an atom is the equivalent size of a grain of sand inside Westminster Abbey, and electrons aren’t much bigger. So the inside of atoms is mostly empty space and there’s a lot of room for electrons to whizz around inside an atom.

So what’s the rest of the space filled with, and what attracts these atoms together? That’s what most scientists thinks the Higgs Boson does, it glues everything together and provides the right conditions for the Universe to work in the relatively orderly way it does.

Famous Bees... Gees
Physicists like to use a political analogy to describe the way this all works, but I’m going to go with Bees. We know Bees live in a hive, a hive will have one queen and thousands of drone Bees who keep her warm, fed and happy so that she can produce more Bees. But if a hive of Bees is like a shopping precinct and the queen Bee was famous and what she did of a day was of great interest to the rest of the Bee population and she decided that she was going to go to the Beehive equivalent of Urban Outfitters or Next or whatever, then she would be the nucleus and the paparazzi Bees would be the Higgs Boson, assuming they all crowded round her and her movements were dictated by them. Of course this requires that the Queen Bee tells the Paparazzi Bees that she’s going to Urban Outfitters and that the Pap Bees go along with all of this as long as they get some nice snaps of her looking all dazzling and Queen Bee like.

So that’s what the Higgs Boson is supposed to do. It’s supposed to pull everything else in the direction that it’s supposed to go in, but at an atomic level, not like being pulled by an elephant or by Reindeers or one of those funny, little, three-wheeled Taxi things that they have in India and such places.

The problem is that this is all just a theory and no one actually knows if the Higgs Boson actually exists, they think it does because it would explain a lot about the big missing bit of the Universe, the origins of the Universe and the way it all works. They came a step closer this week with their little experiment and until next year when they fire particles at one another again we won’t know if they’re right.

So that’s the nub of the thing really, Bees and trying to solve the deepest, most cryptic riddles of the Universe, by chucking tiny particles down a huge garden hose on the Swiss-French border so that they clatter into other tiny particles and explode so that they can measure the energy given off, all over again. This is what particle physicians really do, they keep running the same experiment until everyone in the particle physics game is totally certain that the experiment proved the theory right and that there are no other possible answers, except that never happens because physicists like nothing more than proving another theory wrong and throwing the whole of science into a whirlpool of confusion and bafflement. A bit like a milkman bringing you two pints of milk every day but slipping a note under your Gold Top that says “Actually Yogurt Has Been Proved To Be Better Than Milk”.

If it keeps them in work, happy and off the streets who can really blame them for that?

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