Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Not-So-Standard Model of Physics

The news echoed around the world: “A Higgs Boson Has Been Discovered.” It was nice to see science on the front page of most media outlets. (How often does this happen? Not enough!) Never mind that most people haven’t the foggiest idea what a boson is, let alone the elusive Higgs boson. For this blog posting, all you need to know is that it is an elementary particle – one of the building blocks of matter.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, is the focal point for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is essentially a 27-kilometer circular tunnel running under Switzerland and mostly France (look at Swiss real estate prices and you’ll know the reason why). Particles in the tunnel are accelerated to near the speed of light and then – bang (but not the big bang) – they collide with each other. The resulting impact breaks them apart into smaller sub-particles. The LHC was designed to see if a hypothesized particle, the Higgs boson, could be detected. This discovery is important to physicists since it would help explain how mass is acquired and possibly validate the so-called Standard Model of Physics. Because of its importance to understanding our universe, the Higgs has been called the “God particle”. Physicists are apparently pretty good at creating media-friendly catchphrases.

When I realized that my 2011 summer holiday was going to take me within a short hop of Geneva, I  asked my family if they would be willing to take a detour. To my surprise, they enthusiastically approved! Reading about the LHC is one thing; seeing it in person is quite another.

If you look closer at the LHC facility and the quest to detect the Higgs, then you see something amazing. Imagine:
  • the audacity of creating a vision over 20 years ago to build the facility needed to show the existence of the Higgs,
  • the effort required to convince thousands of scientists to work towards realizing the LHC vision,
  • the sales job required to convince dozens of governments to invest billions of dollars in a grand physics experiment,
  • the perseverance required to bring the project to reality,
  • the challenge of finding a particle that is so tiny you can pack roughly 1025 of them in a kilogram (ten million billion billion),
  • the challenge of creating new technology to meet the extraordinary precision needed to “see” the Higgs, and
  • the challenge of getting all of this to work. 
These accomplishments are impressive! But that is not what made the lasting impression on me. At CERN, I saw hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries, all working together in a spirit of cooperation. Politics were irrelevant. Religion was irrelevant. They all shared a passion for scientific discovery. I have seen projects with similar characteristics, but they are all on a micro scale compare the LHC effort.

It is amazing what humanity can do when we put aside our differences and work towards a common goal. What has been accomplished at CERN is an example that the rest of the world should admire and emulate. In other words, the physics example is a Not-So-Standard Model for the world.

Congratulations to everyone associated with this incredible project!
On holidays at CERN. Photograph taken by the physics star Roger Moore, not the movie star Roger Moore.


  1. I thought this was relevant and interesting: Lederman explains the origins of the nickname and describes modern particle physics with a really interesting flare. His romanticization of the Higgs is really a testament of just how passionate scientists are about their work.

  2. One word: Jealous

    I will have to bribe Roger to give my family a tour one day.