Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) was a famous Indian Physicist and Mathematician known for his collaboration with Einstein in providing key insights into the foundational developments in Physics. These include the theory of Bose-Einstein condensates – the weird, degenerate properties of matter when cooled to very, very low temperatures. He should have won the Nobel Prize in Physics but, for some reason was overlooked although many in the same field who did extensions to his ground breaking work did get the coveted prize. To honor him a fundamental class of elementary particles, ones that cause the existence of the basic forces in nature (such as gravity, electromagnetic etc.) are named bosons.
The famous and most recent member of the boson family is the Higgs boson – and everybody in the world has been looking for it.
On December 13th we heard some tantalizing news from CERN, the world’s most respected center for fundamental physics research, situated in Europe, straddling Switzerland and France.
CERN’s latest super-gizmo, the Large Hadron Collider, along with Fermi Labs’ Tevatron (located near Chicago), have been looking for the Higgs boson or the God particle as it has been famously dubbed. And they may have just found it! If they did it would turn a fantastic construct of the human mind into reality in explaining the fabric of our universe.
OK, so what’s the Higgs and what does it mean? The Higgs boson is the proposed answer to a simple question posed by a bunch of physicists – why is there mass? The Standard Model, (**See Box for a simple description) which is the most comprehensive, fundamental description of our Universe, could only accommodate the existence of mass if something was breaking a perfect symmetry in the Model. In 1964 a British researcher, Peter Higgs and his colleagues postulated the Higgs particle which interacted with other particles to break the symmetry and produce mass. This was purely a theoretical construct, adding yet another member to the seeming menagerie of particles that constitute the fundamental building blocks of our Universe, and an attempt to salvage the Standard Model.
On December 13th 2011, two of the researchers at CERN’s headquarters in Geneva announced to a breathless world that they had found something that looks (as the Economist magazine put it) encouragingly “Higgsy.” What they found does not meet the strict requirements of a conclusive proof, but the results were statistically very promising as two independent experiments from two different approaches gave the same results.
These experiments at CERN are mind blowing. 300 feet below ground they built a 17-mile loop in which they produce the coldest and fastest proton beams on earth. One billion protons per second, travelling close to the speed of light are then injected in opposite directions and circulate 11,000 times per second speeding up all the time, propelled by super-cooled magnets. At 4 points the beams intersect – after 100 billion protons are squeezed into a tube with 1/3 the diameter of a human hair causing incredibly high speed collisions. Millions of very sensitive sensors read the debris trails that are created from exploding protons and look for statistical signatures predicted for the Higg’s boson.
They do this day in and day out as the probabilities of head-on collisions remain low even with the enormous squeezing of billions of particles. 150,000 GB of data has been collected in 2011 alone and is crunched using the world wide net all around the globe.
And the researchers are giddy with what they have found – almost conclusive evidence of the Higgs. It will take the entire year of 2012 to be sure. There could still be many a slip between cup and lip, but everyone suspects we are at the threshold of history in the making.
If we can unambiguously demonstrate that the Higgs boson exists it would be a great mind-over-matter victory for physics. And physics surely needs it. Currently there are many unreconciled directions in which physics has progressed and many contradictions exist. Even with the validation of the Higgs field, the Standard Model cannot integrate quantum gravity with quantum mechanics and has no model for dark energy and dark matter, two bizarre substances that seem to pervade the Universe.
Also a pair of recent experiments have thrown up the possibility that neutrinos can actually travel faster than the speed of light thus violating Einstein’s theory of relativity!
What’s going on?!!
Many say we need a new paradigm in physics – the last really monumental work in physics was only done a century ago. Ever since we are chomping at the edges and accumulating contradictions, waiting for the insight that will unify everything again.
Last year while visiting the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, India, I met a physicist, C. S. Unnikrishnan, who runs a world class lab in Cold Matter physics and is a member of a team building INDIGO, the Indian gravity waves measurement experiment. In his spare time he claims to have developed a Higgs-like formulation to the question, “Why do we have a speed limit in physics equal to the speed of light?” He claims it is not a fundamental law of physics but mediated by a gradient field. His ideas are very radical indeed and he was getting much resistance from the conventional thinkers in his field. But now, with the neutrino experiments showing matter travelling faster than light maybe he will be taken seriously and we may see the emergence of an “Unni” boson!