11/07/2012 12:03 BST | Updated 09/09/2012 10:12 BST

What a Discovery Explaining the Universe's Mass Says About Other Weighty Issues


On 4 July the CERN institute announced a discovery that would put an end to something that has been bugging scientists for a while; enough to warrant a five-decade search, millions of man hours and billions of euros worth of support. Their struggle not only resolves one of science's most elusive mysteries, but also contains important lessons on how Europe can shake off its economic lethargy.

Boffins were at a loss to explain why anything weighs what it does. The Standard Model did a pretty good job of making clear how the universe works, except when it came to mass. There was simply no convincing explanation for the mass of particles, matter's smallest building blocks.

In 1964 physicist Peter Higgs theorised an invisible field covering everything in the universe could provide the answer. A particle's mass could then be an expression of how easily it made its way through the field. Beams of light would flit through it, while other particles would wade through it. But this nifty theory could only be proved if a particle was found that could give mass to other particles: the so-called Higgs boson named after the physicist who speculated it might exist.

The Higgs boson, if it existed, was not something you could just take a picture of. It required multi-billion dollar machines capable of smashing protons together at high speed to see if the resulting fragments would reveal the existence of the boson nick-named the God particle. Both the US and Europe competed for decades to become the first to find it. The race was finally won last Wednesday when Swiss-based CERN made its announcement.

Here's where the lessons come in. CERN's success illustrates two things the European Parliament has been stressing for a long time. Europe would never have made the discovery had countries not worked together on a continental scale, providing staff and resources, while also receiving significant support from the EU. There is no single European country large enough to provide the funds and expertise needed for such a project. Similarly, globalisation and the economic crisis are such hefty challenges that no single country will be able to take them on without a little help from others. From the start the Parliament has called for a coordinated European approach to the crisis. MEPs have proposed several measures such as a financial transaction tax, a cap on bankers' bonuses and eurobonds that could make all the difference.

The discovery also shows that Europe can still lead in research and innovation. The EU is rightly proud of its standard of living but this can only be kept up if it continues to innovate. Key to this would be a new European patent that would be easier and cheaper, which is what MEPs have been pushing for. Parliament is currently also considering Horizon 2020, a €80 billion plan to boost research and innovation for 2014-2020. The idea is to make it easier for researchers and companies to find funding. EU spending on research would be increased and more support given to small and medium-sized companies and market-oriented activities. It will be voted on in plenary at the end of the year.

If Europe is capable of unlocking the universe's secrets, then surely it should also be capable of overcoming the crisis - if we all work together.

Photo © CERN: the large Hadron collider/ATLAS at CERN