Earlier this month, you may have read about the discovery of something called the Higgs boson, more fabulously known as the “God particle.” You might have also noticed that the man who shared the news with the whole world from a facility in Switzerland is a professor from our very own UC Santa Barbara. But amid the headlines and hoopla, you may have never figured out why the discovery is so important, what UCSB had to do with it, or what the heck a Higgs boson is.
That’s okay. These days, while most of us can’t get through high school without a basic understanding of atomic structure — electrons orbiting around nuclei composed of protons and neutrons — very few of us learn much about the smaller subatomic particles such as quarks, muons, gluons, and bosons. Even if we did, we’d find the mathematical formulas that describe these obscure particles and their relationships with the universe far above our heads. So that is why, as in the case of the recent discovery, physicists must resort to crude metaphors that shed a bit of light on their work when communicating with the rest of us.
To explain the Higgs boson, physicist David Stuart — a member of UCSB’s High Energy Physics (HEP) group who left Switzerland a day before his campus colleague Joe Incandela broke the big news — opted for “the paparazzi effect,” a popular metaphor being used around the globe to illustrate the biggest discovery in particle physics since at least 1983. “Imagine if President Barack Obama were walking across campus,” explained Stuart two days after the announcement, waving toward the quad outside his fifth-floor office window in Broida Hall. “People would crowd around him and want to talk to him and take his photo. He wouldn’t get too far because his environment would slow him down.” Compare that to a random undergrad walking the same quad, unencumbered by the paparazzi and able to move freely and quickly along.
In that metaphor, the paparazzi are like the Higgs field (the omnipresent fabric of space that was theorized by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs in 1964) and Obama and the undergrad represent particles with differing amounts of mass — the president being massive, the undergrad being nearly massless. Though the theory about what gives objects mass was conceived nearly 50 years ago, the critical component to proving it had yet to be found, leaving a gap in the Standard Model of physics. But this year, the physicists finally located possible members of the paparazzi and were able to show evidence of the existence of the Higgs boson, which would thereby confirm the field and its role in creating mass. “The field permeates the universe,” explained Stuart. “If you excite the field, you will produce the particle.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to know where to place the discovery of the Higgs boson in the filing cabinet of the human mind. It is at once a momentously important particle, and at the same time, it is invisible and abstract, only detectable by extremely intricate scientific instruments and only able to be created by a 27-kilometer-long particle accelerator that cost $9 billion to build. Combine something too small to see with ideas too big to grasp, and wrap it up in a metaphor that barely works, and it’s easy to see why physicists can come across as high priests nurturing arcane knowledge about the mysteries of the universe. When the physicist Leon Lederman called his 1993 book about the Higgs boson particle The God Particle — he wrote that he actually wanted to call it the “Goddamn particle” because it was so hard to find — it only reinforced that perception.
But most physicists say nothing is further from the truth. As imperceptible as the forces governing our universe are to the naked eye, they are real, they are empirical, and they are material. This is not religion or even metaphysics — it is cold, hard science, and the real magic is in the technology.