We have had confirmation that the Higgs boson has been spotted in the earth-shattering experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), near Geneva. This is an achievement that will go down in history as one of the greatest. Why should this be the case? What is so important about this particle that it’s gathered so much media attention and, more importantly, so much dedication from scientists and technicians working so hard at CERN?
All of matter, as far as we can tell, is composed of four fundamental pieces: the up quark, the down quark, the electron and the electron neutrino. Four particles which, when combined in a certain quantity and configuration, make up all of matter as we know it. It is as simple as that. The water that flows in our rivers, the wind blowing over the Amazon forest, the grains of sand in the Sahara desert, the fish in the oceans, the house we dwell in, this planet we’re born on and all the stars and galaxies in our universe are made up of those four particles.
The key question that has been baffling physicists for decades is this: where from or how do these particles gain their masses? Why should the up quark be considerably more massive than the electron? Where does this thing called mass come from? For without mass none of matter will exist in its current form. This most fundamental of conundrum has finally been answered and asserted by the discoveries at the CERN laboratories. We have found this ‘thing’ which gives everything else their respective masses. This ‘thing’ is what we call the Higgs boson. A boson is just a technical term associated with a certain type of entity. Just like when we name certain objects ‘chair’ and others ‘cup’, in the physics of matter we name certain particles ‘hadron’ and others ‘boson’, for example. They represent different types of particles with different properties. So far, this particle has only existed in the realm of theoretical physics. It was a concept conjured up by Professor Peter Higgs, some fifty years ago, to explain why all of matter should have this property called mass. Now, finally, it has been shown to exist.
So how important is the discovery of the Higgs boson? How relevant is it that we have pinned down the particle that gives mass to all the fundamental particles? Besides the obvious fact that without mass there is no stuff and, therefore, the discovery of the Higgs boson is very significant in that aspect, how else is this discovery meaningful?
Remember when we discovered the electron? No? Well, that was about 116 years ago. None of us using the computer and the internet today will have any recollection of this event. Yet it would have been impossible, back then in 1896, to imagine that the discovery of this tiniest of particles will one day lead to the advent of electronics and eventually computers and the internet itself. What the discovery of the electron has done is open the doors to yet many more theories, discoveries and inventions which, over merely a century, have completely changed the face of the world. Electronic components, devices and gadgets are almost ubiquitous whether in the form of radio and television sets, mobile phones or microwave ovens and even cars.
Wherever you go you will undoubtedly come across a device that is dependent on electronics and therefore on the physics of how electrons behave. This is one simple example. The same can be said about the discovery of the effect of magnets on electricity. It can be dismissed as an interesting piece of gimmickry but its applications are vast and its contribution to the technological advancement of the society is unquantifiable. Like electronics, the applications of electromagnetism permeate all of society.
The relevance of a scientific discovery might not be immediately apparent. It might take a generation or even centuries before we appreciate its full-fledged importance. What we must learn from the past inventions and discoveries is that their contribution to society cannot be measured in numbers and cannot have a price-tag. We might be investing billions of dollars and decades of hard work in a laboratory experiment but the payoff is truly priceless. Experiments being carried out at CERN to try to unravel the fabric of the universe involve massive investments both in terms of political will, financial costs and years of labour. Besides the discovery of the Higgs boson, numerous other discoveries and ideas have sprouted (either directly or indirectly) from CERN. The invention of the internet is one of them. To dismiss such experiments as being expensive or irrelevant is to be shortsighted.
Who knows what is in store for humanity in the laboratories and research centres across the world? The Higgs boson is the latest in a long line of history-making discoveries that lay down the paths to yet unexplored territories and new fields of research. One thing is for sure: the universe in all its complexity is far simpler than it appears to be. Just think of it. Everything there is in the universe: from ants, plants, planets, stars, to gigantic galaxies; everyone and everything is connected and made up of four simple ingredients. And that which bestows mass upon all of this is the humble Higgs boson.