What is the "God particle"?

March 6, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I recently saw a special on the Large Hadron Collider, which, among other things, hopes to find evidence of the "God particle." Since physics is not my strong suit, I've tried to understand this particle through the library and the Web but everything I find makes my eyes glaze over. Cecil, please explain the God particle in layman's terms.

Cecil replies:

Some people find God in church, some in the great outdoors, but it takes truly transcendent geekiness to find divinity in the Large Hadron Collider.

Your question takes us to the strange world of quantum physics, where most folks find almost nothing makes intuitive sense, and which even I find is best grasped with the aid of some good cabernet. For years physicists have sought a Theory of Everything that would explain how all the particles and forces in the universe interact to produce the workaday world. So far they've made some progress: the so-called Standard Model explains the relationship between three of the four fundamental forces, namely electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force (holds atomic nuclei together), and the weak nuclear force (has to do with radioactivity). However, the Standard Model leaves out that fourth force, gravity — a nontrifling omission — and hasn't been significantly revised since the heyday of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The God particle and the Large Hadron Collider are an attempt to get things off the dime.

Specifically: One planet-sized hole in the Standard Model is that it doesn't explain why things have mass. As a fix for this problem, scientists have proposed the Higgs particle, aka the Higgs boson, aka the God particle — the last a term popularized by the book of that title by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman. Lederman says the God particle was so named because (a) it's short for "goddamn particle," presumably owing to the difficulty of establishing its existence, and (b) finding proof of said existence would help us understand the "mind of God." Skeptics would likely add that the term is also appropriate because (c) like its namesake, it may not really be there.

Now for the woolly part. If it exists, the Higgs particle is a part of the Higgs field, which fills the universe but is invisible to our eyes and, so far, to all scientific instruments. Subatomic particles — everything that makes up matter — are thought to acquire mass by how they interact with the Higgs field. To explain how this works, I'll paraphrase an explanation floated in 1993 by David Miller, then at the department of physics and astronomy, University College, London. Imagine a convention hall filled with political groupies, a scary thought all by itself. The hall represents the universe; the groupies represent the Higgs field. Now suppose Barack Obama enters the room. (In Miller's telling the political heavyweight was Margaret Thatcher, but that was then.) Obama represents a subatomic particle. The political groupies cluster around the president, seeking to bask in his cool and possibly get a job at the State Department. As Obama tries to make his way through the room, he gathers new hangers-on, while others drop off due to embarrassing questions about unpaid taxes. The cluster of groupies hovering around Obama represents the mass the president gains while he's in the Higgs field.

Now let's take the same roomful of groupies and suppose a rumor passes through the room, such as that the government is going to speed up the economic stimulus program by heaving buckets of money out the window. As the rumor spreads, the groupies cluster together — some in stationary huddles, others in roving bands. Just as the clustered groupies gave mass to Obama when he was on the scene, they also give mass to themselves. Each cluster constitutes a God particle, which can thus be said to arise, if you will, “whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name."

Where does the Large Hadron Collider come into this? Located on the French-Swiss border, the LHC is the newest and largest particle accelerator in the world and will be used in several groundbreaking areas of research, one of which is finding evidence of the Higgs/God particle. (That is, it will if they can keep it up and running; LHC setbacks have led scientists at Fermilab to predict that their smaller Tevatron accelerator may yet win the Higgs race.) Most people wouldn't even be aware of the LHC's existence except for concerns that it could be the ultimate doomsday machine. Opponents have sued to stop the collider, claiming it could create microscopic black holes that could eat the planet, so-called strange matter that would do, well, strange things, or vacuum bubbles that could wink out the universe.

Most scientists think the LHC has a decent chance of finding out if the Higgs particle exists and minimal chance of killing us all, and in any case will provide steady employment for physicists, who are feeling the pinch just like everyone else. I figure we're hosed regardless and could use the entertainment. Let 'er rip.

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References

CERN European Organization for Nuclear Research. The safety of the LHC.

CERN Press Release. First beam in the LHC – Accelerating Science.

Gray, Richard. “Legal bid to stop CERN atom smasher from 'destroying the world.'” The Daily Telegraph 09 September 2008.

Green, Brian. “The Origins of the Universe: A Crash Course.” New York Times 11 September 2008.

Lederman, Leon. The God Particle. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

Sweet, William. “Europe’s Supercollider Project.” IEEE Spectrum (October, 1994): 47-54.

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