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The Higgs Boson and its Role in the Universe

July 9, 2012

David goldberg

On July 4, scientists at the CERN research center in Geneva, Switzerland, announced that after decades of intense research and billions of dollars spent, they believe they have identified the long-sought Higgs boson. Named for Peter Higgs, the theorist who first postulated the particle’s existence in the 1960s, the Higgs boson could answer many fundamental questions about the universe.

After the announcement, DrexelNow spoke with Dr. David Goldberg, associate professor of physics at Drexel, about the Higgs boson and its role in the universe.

The Higgs has been referred to as “the god particle,” but this is a bit of a misnomer. Can you explain why that nickname isn’t accurate?

The Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman used it as a title for one of his books to get people excited about science, but it gives a somewhat false impression of the role the Higgs really plays. This isn’t to say that the Higgs isn’t an incredibly important piece of the puzzle—it is—but it’s a huge overstatement to imply that the Higgs is the missing link that will finally give us a unified model of physics.

Discovering it will tell us that the standard model [of particle physics] is more or less on the right track, but it won't tell us why the standard model is what it is, or why it has particular parameters, or how everything combines with gravity. It's an important particle—in many ways, on par with the photon itself—but it's not the be-all and end-all.

If the Higgs particle is real, what does this mean for physics as a whole?

The preliminary results seem to suggest that the Higgs is real—and a good thing, too. This is an incredible result (provided, of course that the rumors are correct and the initial results hold). It is a confirmation that we have a unified model that describes an enormous range of physical phenomena. On the other hand, it doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain how gravity works. While we assume that the Higgs has something to do with the mass of some particles, we don’t know exactly how that all fits together. It doesn’t tell us what dark matter is. It doesn’t explain why we have only certain symmetries in our universe. In other words, it’s not the end of the story.

The science behind the Higgs particle is incredibly complex, yet this project has received a lot of public interest. Why do you think the average person should be interested in the discovery of the Higgs boson?

There are a few simple arguments. First, it helps us understand our place in the universe. Second, we are an advanced civilization; knowledge is a luxury that we should engage in. It helps train our minds, and it is one of the defining features of what makes us advanced. Third, abstract science helps us understand other science—even applied science—better. Finally, we should be interested in this discovery because it is awesome. It should be downright compelling that all of the mass we observe and think of as “real” or “fundamental” is, in fact, caused by a mechanism that ultimately gives mass to the massless.

Click here to learn more about the Higgs boson.