HIGGS BOSON: The Resurgence of European Research and a Triumph for Physics

16/07/2012 12:13 | Updated 12 September 2012

In the 1930s, the exodus of scores of brilliant scientists from Europe to America, including none other than Albert Einstein, had ensured the American dominance in scientific research, especially in physics, for more than half a century. Now with CERN as the clear pioneer in particle physics research, the land of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton seems poised to retake their position of preeminence in the field of science, or at least particle physics. The recently confirmed discovery of the long hypothesized Higgs-Boson, the so called "god particle," signals a clear shift in the balance.

The significance of the choice of date for the announcement of the result by CERN, the 4th of July, was not lost on many observers in the US. While it may have been just a coincidence, with CERN stating that the date was timed to coincide with a Conference on particle physics in Australia, there is undoubtedly an irony in the fact that CERN chose the American Independence Day to release the news of the greatest discovery in particle physics and probably modern science.

Had the US Congress not canceled a proposed plan for a particle collider larger than CERN's Large Hadron Collider or LHC in 1993, in all probability it would have been the Americans who arrived at this landmark first. Not that the CERN research is an exclusively European achievement. It took the concerted effort of 10,000 researchers from all over the world, including over 2000 Americans, making it a truly international and achievement, and a triumph for humanism. But the leadership is clearly in European hands, and more significantly, EU based companies get preference when it comes to commercial application of CERN research.

Coming back to the actual discovery of the Higgs-Boson itself, physicists all over the world have been waiting for more than 40 years for this moment. This discovery all but validates the Standard Model of particle physics, which is a theory explaining the particle interactions at the sub-atomic level. Postulated in the 1970s, Standard Model is the main pillar of theoretical physics' explanation for Quantum Mechanics.

Physics is the study of matter, and its motion through the space-time continuum, and can be understood as an attempt to understand the universe we exist in. one of the ultimate objectives of physicists is to arrive at a Theory of Everything, a single unified theory that can categorically explain every physical phenomena in the universe. There are tremendous obstacles in this endeavor. The theories of Classical mechanics, which deals with the motion on objects in space-time, are incompatible with the observed phenomena at the sub-atomic level. Newtonian physics, and Einstein's greatest achievement, the General Theory of Relativity, do not successfully explain the behavior of sub-atomic particles: the quarks, leptons, gauge bosons and the Higgs boson.

Earlier atoms were thought to be the most basic building blocks of matter. Then it was discovered that atoms are made up of electrons, protons and neutrons. Further discovery of elementary particles like quarks and leptons radically altered our understanding of matter. This led to the evolution of quantum mechanics, and its Standard Model theory. Physics had moved on from atomic particles to the more fundamental sub-atomic level, matter at its most basic building blocks. To understand them would be to understand the creation of the universe, hence the frequent and unfortunate reference to Higgs boson as the 'god particle.'

The Higgs boson was theorized by a team of researchers including Peter Higgs, the British scientist who is the namesake of the particle postulated. The Higgs boson was especially crucial to the Standard Model, because it was the key to explaining how elementary particles have the property of mass. As experimental physics made giant strides, discovering the elementary particles predicted by Standard Model one by one, the excitement and anticipation mounted. But the Higgs boson proved to be the most elusive.

The Science News magazine best sums up the physicists' obsession with the Higgs boson:

"For more than three decades, the Higgs has been physicists' version of King Arthur's Holy Grail, Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, Captain Ahab's Moby Dick. It's been an obsession, a fixation, an addiction to an idea that almost every expert believed just had to be true."

Obsession is a word that can be readily associated with physicists, probably more than any other species of scientists. Physics is one of the oldest disciplines that mankind has wrestled with, in our quest to understand this universe and us in it. Brilliant minds devote their entire lives to it, without achieving any significant results. It can be a very unforgiving subject. Even Einstein, considered one of the greatest minds, couldn't unravel all its mysteries. It is this challenge that drives these men and women, the challenge of the unknown.

So, what does this discovery mean for us? For the physicists, it will probably open a new frontier, with more formidable challenges to tackle. But for the common man, what implications does the discovery of the Higgs boson have? The DNA was discovered in 1953 by Crick and Watson. Biotechnology has still not fully explored all the possibilities of this discovery to date. In comparison, particle physics research is even more of a pure science endeavor, and while this is a monumental achievement, its practical applications could be decades away.

Of course, the cyber sphere is abuzz with excitement. But there is much frenzy being created, partly due to the unfortunate naming of the Higgs boson as the 'god particle.' This is indeed an unfortunate misnomer. All that this does in muddy the waters and add fuel to the never ending debate between atheists and theists. The Higgs boson or its research has absolutely no implications to religion or God, nor does it in anyway conclusively overthrow any human conception of a God. Its greatest value lies in the fact that it is a remarkable elementary particle, one that offers a fundamental and elegant understanding of the universe,