Wednesday, July 04, 2012

It's no God particle. It is just another curious, puzzling new particle, impossible to pin down, difficult to identify.Higgs boson -- riding high on an elusive trace of a particle which is not a fluke perhaps but it is still not a certainty

Newspapers, media in general, are wonderfully ignorant about science. It is not the fault of journalists. The subject is difficult. There are no daily thrills. So it is natural the media should get a little unhinged with the announcement made at Cern, the European nuclear physics research centre, at Geneva in Switzerland. After stumbling upon what has come to be known as "particle zoo" with its electrons, protons, quarks, muons, bosons, fermions and all that, theory demanded that there should be another particle which is providing the physical or energy prop to the rest of the invisible but verifiable  particles. The man who postulated the new particle, or boson, is Peter Higgs. Theory demanded it. Reality has to live up to theory. So, physicists, who were like schoolboys excited by the prospect of  catching hold of this wisp of a particle were willing to do any and every experiment to bring into existence this underlying particle. So, in Geneva they built a 27-km underground round tunnel across Franco-Swiss border -- something of a toy train track -- at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and let loose the protons at the maximum speeds, nearing the speed of light, so that they give rise at lightning speeds to the predicted Higgs particle. It is what has happened this year, and it is this that the Cern scientists announced. But they knew that they were standing on imaginary ground. So, they are describing it as a "signature", a "signal", a "trace". The only thing they are sure about is that it is real, that it is short of a fluke, and it can be with another herculean effort, made to appear for a fleeting moment once again just to prove Higgs particle is no illusion.
 The physicists are also hesitant to declare that they have rounded off theory. This is not really a victory, a culmination of the so-called Standard Model. The sub-atomic particle mystery is not yet over. There might be more particles waiting to be discovered. The Higgs particle, they are ready to admit, is no single entity. There could be many hidden behind that faint spark of a thing. That is why, it is being called the beginning not an end of a journey.
Peter Higgs is happy. What he has postulated as a necessity has been confirmed. But physics has not ended. We do not know what lies behind and beneath the Higgs particle.
The other feature to be remembered is that more experimental successes have been achieved at the atomic and sub-atomic physics levels. The microcosm, the puzzling particle zoo, offers the tantalising prospect of getting at the whole of reality. It is being hoped that what happens in the nearly infinite infinitesimal sub-atomic universe will provide a clue to as how things work and change at the level of the universe as such, in the Big Bang, in the first three seconds and the first three minutes of the universe, in the birth of galaxies, stars, and in black holes. But it is impossible to predict things at the macro-level. Physicists hope that if they master the understanding of the particle universe, they may crack the code of the universe as such. Difficult business at the best of times.

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