Voices

Weird science

The "God particle" and the future of physics

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

Here's the problem: according to the Big Bang theory, which is science's best guess as to the origin of the universe, everything that now is was once a single fundamental particle of unimaginable density. The "bang" that blew it apart created equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which should have extinguished each other. Instead, the universe is demonstrably full of stuff. Why?

Here, perhaps, is the solution: Sometime in July (or August) a 17-mile underground loop near Geneva will activate two opposing streams of subatomic particles at a velocity that will quickly ratchet up to just below speed of light. At four experimental stations along the route the particles will crash and explode, producing further particles, including-it is fervently hoped-one that has long been suspected but undetected. The project is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the Holy Grail of this massive science experiment is the Higgs boson, aka the "God particle."

In the simplest possible terms (which are the only terms I can understand), physics has identified 16 fundamental particles, including electrons and quarks, which make up all matter. (Compounds of quarks, such as protons and neutrons, are collectively known as "hadrons.") Fundamental particles are theoretically without mass, so how can they amount to stars and trees and mosquitoes? The Higgs is postulated as an invisible field that fills spaces once thought to be empty and lends mass to the particles that make up matter.

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Theoretical physicist John Ellis likens the Higgs field to a mud puddle trampled by individuals wearing big boots (quarks), light flip-flops (electrons), or no shoes at all (photons). The more "mud" that sticks to a sole, the more matter.

"We are going to make that particle," says Jos Engelen, chief scientific officer of the project. "Or we are going to show that it doesn't exist."

This is big: If it succeeds, the first confirmed physics breakthrough since the early 1970s and an incentive to build bigger and better colliders. If it fails, the most expensive flop in scientific history and a possible coup de grâce to experimental physics for the foreseeable future. The LHC is at the frontier of what can be known about the material world; if the Higgs fails to show, and nothing else of interest turns up, physics may have reached the limit of empirical knowledge and will cross over into pure speculation (where some say it already is).

The LHC is under the direction of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and is staffed by scientists from all over the world. But not everybody is on board. In March, a lawsuit was filed in U. S. district court in Hawaii by Walter Wagner and Luis Sancho, two concerned citizens (one of the United States, the other of Spain). The suit asks to delay the collider's startup until further study has vetted possible dangers, such as the creation of a black hole that would swallow the universe. Or the development of "strangelets" (don't ask) that would vaporize the earth in a chain reaction.

One suspects that Wagner and Sancho have too much time on their hands. The status of their case is unclear, but even though it has generated lively online debates, it will probably not stop the lever being thrown sooner or later.

And what then? Since quantum theory rocked their world in the early 20th century, physicists have been looking for the basic stuff of matter. But with each major discovery, the nature of reality becomes more mysterious, not less. Matter appears to be made up of infinitesimal puzzle pieces that don't fit, innumerable unions that should fly apart. Why doesn't it?

Or, as the ancient Greeks wondered, what is the logos, the underlying principle of the universe?

Around a.d. 70, near the great hinge of human time, John wrote, "In the beginning was the logos. . . ." A few years earlier, Paul wrote, "In him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).

That's not a scientific answer, of course. But no particle found is likely to replace it.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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