Monday, April 16, 2007

The Higgs

Consider the recent cover of Science reproduced above. You are looking at the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the several particle detectors being prepared for next year's debut of CERN's Large Hadron Collider particle accelerating machine. The detector weighs 13,000 metric tons and is installed in a hall 10 meters underground. You can get some sense of scale by comparing it to the two physicists in the lower left corner. The accelerator itself resides in a 27 kilometer-long circular tunnel on the French-Swiss border. It will generate energies seven times higher than any previous "atom smasher." The cost? Billions.

And what do the physicists hope to see? They would be very happy to produce the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle", a hypothetical subatomic particle predicted by current theory. The Higgs, if it can be coaxed into existence, will endure for only a tiny fraction of a second. To tell the truth, the researchers don't know what they will find as they push their energies ever closer to those that existed in the immediate aftermath of the big bang.

Implausibly, a subatomic-sized black hole created in the accelerator, might gobble up the Earth, or, alternately, a stable "strangelet" might accrete ordinary matter and convert it into strange matter. Poof! The end of the world. But not to worry. If the physicists suck the world into oblivion, it will happen so fast that we won't have time to wring our hands and rue.

Some folks call the giant particle accelerating machines the Gothic cathedrals of our time. The medieval cathedrals at least promised eternal life to the poor believing souls who provided the funds. The European taxpayers who are mostly footing the bill for the Large Hadron Collider will get scant reward for their bucks -- a particle that has vanished within microseconds of its creation. But, Lordy, even skeptics must admit that the thing is a wonder -- the most elaborate machine ever conceived and executed by the human mind.

Some years ago, Britain's Minister for Science, William Waldegrave, issued a challenge: Can physicists explain -- on a single sheet of paper -- what the Higgs boson is, and why it is important to find it? The taxpaying public, he said, has a right to ask "Why?" He offered a bottle of vintage champagne for the best response. Not one to pass up a drink, I offered the following -- in verse:
Democritus imagined
a world of atoms
bumping in the void
(we are abuzz with them,
he thought). Leucippus
and Lucretius gave ascent.
And so it went till Thomson,
Rutherford, and others
discovered nature's trinity--
electrons, protons, neutrons.
How simple! These three
were enough to explain
all that exists. But wait.
As physicists banged
these particles about, others
proliferated like bubbles
in champagne -- pions,
muons, neutrinos, quarks,
and so forth -- a froth of troubles
for searchers of simplicity.
More! Electrons, for example,
interact, repelling. How?
By exchanging photons, Richard
Feynman said. Quarks too
get sticky by passing gluons
back and forth (a subtle bit
of Dicky physics, but it worked).
And what of the force called
"weak" between, say, a neutron
and an electron, clearly
not electric. Well, let those
particles too exchange a kind
of anti-glue, called W's and Z's.
All these -- and more -- the
physicists found with their
machines (God's plan, it seems,
is not inscrutable to man).
But one, alas! The Higgs,
the heaviest of all, the particle
that passing back and forth
gives all the others mass.
To make it will require
more energy and purse
than you and I possess.
To make things worse,
no one knows for sure exactly
what the Higgs might be, or if
it exists at all. Lest the physicist's
earnest pleas for funds fall
on unreceptive ears, call
it "the God Particle."
There! Who will deny so grand
a quest: to wrest God's
secret plan from nature's grasp.
Cough up. A billion, please,
or ten. Send those protons
flying on their circumferential
path, to crash, to splatter
a shower of Higgses. Ephemeral,
costly, inconsequential,
yet -- a flash, a radiance of mind,
the dream of Democritus
confirmed at last. The Final Theory
(for the time being).
What's that, you say? No cash?
Then share, Mr. Minister,
at least, your bottle of champagne,
perhaps in vino to inspire the folks
in Geneva (and the U. S. and
Russia and Japan) to find
a cheaper way. The search
for the boson
goes on.