Monday, April 30, 2012

The search for the god particle

Today I opened my regular news sites, and one greeted me with this news:

"Super-collider team discovers new subatomic particle"

I confess, while I can pretty much alternate my chemist's and biologist's hat seemingly seemlessly, I would not dare put on a physicist's hat. If my kid tells me she wants to be a physicist when she grows up, she'll have no dinner that night...until she explains quarks, the Pauli-Fermi principle, the Drake equation and identify what particle's been discovered of late.  And I anticipate that she might try, so I try to keep up with the latest news in the field too.

If 15 years ago you told me that there were more kinds of particles outside of neutrons, electrons and protons, I would have told you that you're full of it. And then, flash forward to today, I'd be writing you one hell of an apology letter.  However, if you find yourself (like me back then) reading "Large Hadron Collider" and "Higgs Boson" in an article, and saying "What. The. Heck.", then have I got the solution for you via some links and a cool video.

With the help of the Large Hadron Collider, physicists have found the 12 particles of the standard model of particle physics, but have not yet found the elusive Higgs boson which has been referred to as the 'god particle' - although it's been reported that some do not like it when the holy grail of particle discoveries is referred to as such. So, while this new discovery of the neutral Xi-b baryon is exciting, we are still waiting with bated breath for the discovery of the Higgs boson and to prove that it is real.

Large Hadron Collider

Much has been written about the Large Hadron Collider. Its presence is hard to ignore. For starter, this machine lies in a tunnel that is 17 miles in circumferences at 574 feet deep near Geneva, Switzerland. It's been referred to as "an atomic peashooter more powerful than any".  In scientific term, it's a particle accelerator.  It's goal is to find out what the universe is made of. Basically, two beams of particles race along the 17 mile ring, and converge, or "crash" if you will. This collision transform the matter into energy,which soon condenses back into some never before seen particles. Cooooool! If you want to know more about the large hadron collider a.k.a. the 'big bang machine' in Geneva, and the big questions addressed by it, here's the link.

So, then, why the interest in the Higgs boson? Well, mainly because its existence can help explain why some particles, like protons and neutrons, have mass and others, like photons, don't. The Higgs boson is said to be THE particle that gives mass to matter.  I guess that's why the  nickname, in spite of Peter Higgs, the man who proposed the boson's existence, being an atheist. Knowing that it doesn't have anything to do with religion, however, allows me to spell 'god' without feeling too irreverent.

Ok, so for the moment you're waiting for, here's the video that explains the Higgs boson.  It's animated which makes it so much more interesting than hearing it in a lecture hall or a chalk-talk in a classrom. Plus, it's only under 8 minutes long.

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