Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Protons Explode in Head-on Collision, Investigators Uncertain Whether Higgs Made it Out Alive

An uncertain cat enjoying a few light-night bosons.
I have titled this blog post with the headline I might use if I were writing a newspaper article covering today's announcement of the discovery of a new particle.  For me, the significance of CERN's update today on the search for the Higgs boson is that the universe is still full of mysteries.  I get the sense that human understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe is at a beginning rather than an end.  It seems that physicists are more excited about the possible questions the LHC collision data raises than in the questions the data potentially answers.  At a press conference in Geneva, CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer said, "We have discovered a new particle: a boson.  Most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out which kind of Higgs boson it is.  Does it have the properties which we expect from the Standard Model?  If not, what are its properties?  And where do they point to?"

As a layman, it is a challenge to understand what particle physicists are saying about the recent analysis of data collected by the LHC detectors, but here's my attempt:  Evidence of a new boson has been detected, but its characteristics are unknown.  It is not yet certain that this boson matches any of the predictions made using the theoretical models that describe matter and forces at the smallest scales; in fact, this boson may be something entirely new.  In any case, many more experiments will need to be conducted. 

I am reminded that the cosmos is full of unexplored territory.  CERN's announcement today evokes the wonder I experienced as a kid watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock gaze into the Enterprise's viewing screen looking for uncharted worlds.  After today, I hope that words like "boson" and "lepton" seep into everyday conversation at least as deeply as "phaser" and "warp speed".