Ever since the University of Edinburgh physicist Peter Higgs proposed its existence in 1964, scientists have known of it. But they haven’t been able to find it.
They’re not speaking of god, but of an inconceivably tiny dot that’s come to be known as the “god particle.” Technically called the Higgs boson, this subatomic particle—a fleck that makes up neutrons, protons, and electrons—is the ultimate building block of matter, believed to be responsible for imparting mass to everything contained in the (known) universe.
Like the “force” from the “Star Wars” series, a Higgs field “surrounds us and binds us.” John Ellis, a physicist, working at the European Center for Nuclear Research (or CERN) explains it beautifully:
Different fundamental particles are like a crowd of people, running through mud. Some particles, like quarks, have big boots that get covered with lots of mud; others, like electrons, have little shoes that barely gather any mud at all. Photons don’t wear shoes—they just glide over the top of the mud without picking any up.
And the Higgs field is the mud.
The Higgs boson, is of course, far smaller than the smallest object the human mind can envision, but it’s still the Gulliver among the Lilliput, with a mass 100 to 200 times that of a proton.
The quest for this elusive particle has been on for 15 years. In 1993, the U.S. built the Superconducting Supercollider. After agencies pumped an Everest’s equivalent of money into the project, it was scrapped.
In 2008, CERN took up the challenge. It built the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. Buried 300 feet below the surface, in a cavern beneath the French-Swiss border, the machine is designed to smash atoms by bombarding them with beams of ultra-high-speed protons.
This would recreate the conditions of a newborn universe, to less than a trillionth of a second old. Simply put, it can produce little Big Bangs.
Running the collider is a mammoth operation.
Everything about the collider sounds, well, large—from the 14 trillion electron volts of energy with which it will smash together protons to the $8 billion it cost to build to the 128 tons of liquid helium needed to cool the superconducting magnets that keep the particles whizzing around their track and the three million DVDs worth of data it will spew forth every year.
Bizarre as it may sound, a couple of well-regarded physicists have put forward the idea that its “creation might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one.”
In an e-mail message to the New York Times, one of the scientists wrote: “It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck.”
Jinxed? The Superconducting Supercollider was shelved unexpectedly, a highly unlikely development that’s been called an “anti-miracle.”
No sooner than the collider revved up its engines, it shut down for a year. A scientist associated with the project was recently arrested for having a connection with the al-Qaida.
Draw your own conclusions. The Higgs boson exists in theory. So, where is it in reality? It looks like it doesn’t want to be found.