Apparently I’m the laughing stock of certain Philadelphia neighborhoods – or so says a reader who called this morning to complain about the Higgs Boson story that ran Monday in print and online over the weekend. He said his neighbors usually enjoy laughing at me for being an “atheist” and “evolution freak” but this week they got an extra shot of mirth over my taking God out of the God particle. He pointed out that it was front page news that they’d found the God particle and I’d purposely omitted the very important connection between particle physics and the almightly. What was I thinking? Physicists just proved there’s a God and I’m trying to cover it up! Ha Ha.
My trusted co-blogger and I have dealt with the “God Particle” moniker in previous posts. Physicists treat the term like flatulence in an elevator. Unable to blame the dog, some point at “the media”. The original source is apparently a 1993 book about particle physics by University of Chicago physicist Leon Lederman. He’s known for repeating the tired line that he originally wanted to call it the “God damned particle” but his editor wouldn’t let him.
Another piece that omitted the lord appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times. The author was Stephen Weinberg, a theorist and one of the key architects of the current theory of matter known as the standard model. He’s a Nobel laureate and also an accomplished popularizer of his field.
In his piece, Weinberg explained something about standard model, what it is and how the Higgs field fits in. He also answered one of the questions that several readers have posed – what good is a Higgs Boson?
…..those who do have to ask whether learning the laws of nature is worth the billions of dollars it costs to build particle accelerators. ….A case can be made for this sort of spending, even to those who don’t care about learning the laws of nature. Exploring the outer frontier of our knowledge of nature is in one respect like war: It pushes modern technology to its limits, often yielding new technology of great practical importance.
For instance, the new particle was produced at CERN in collisions of protons that occur at a rate of over a hundred million collisions per second. To analyze the flood of data produced by all these collisions requires real time computing of unmatched power. Also, before the protons collide, they are accelerated to an energy over 3,000 times larger than the energy contained in their own masses while they go many times around a 27-kilometer circular tunnel. To keep them in their tracks requires enormously strong superconducting magnets, cooled by the world’s largest source of liquid helium. In previous work at CERN, elementary particle physicists developed a method of sharing data that has become the World Wide Web.
On a longer time scale, the advance of technology will reflect the coherent picture of nature we are now assembling. At the end of the 19th century physicists in England were exploring the properties of electric currents passing through a near vacuum. Although this was pure science, it led to our knowledge of the electron, without which a large part of today’s technology would be impossible. If these physicists had limited themselves to work of obvious practical importance, they would have been studying the behavior of steam boilers.