Why you should care about the Higgs boson
What the big discovery means to you.
Rocky Kolb, University of Chicago
Could you explain the July 4 announcement in your own words?
Since the mid-1980s, physicists felt that they had a model of the laws of physics that explained (at least in principle) the results of every laboratory experiment. Known as the standard model (a truly horrendous name that does not do justice to its elegance and beauty), it explains the working of the electromagnetic interaction, the strong nuclear interaction (which binds neutrons and protons in atomic nuclei), and the weak nuclear interaction (responsible for nuclear beta decay). After the 1995 discovery of the top quark at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the only missing piece of the standard model was the Higgs boson. It wasn’t just any old piece; the explanation of the electromagnetic and weak interactions crucially depend on the existence of the Higgs boson.
What does this mean for science?
It is a triumph for science. A wild theoretical idea became part of the standard model. But scientists could not just “believe” it existed; they had to go out and find it. The discovery was the result of decades of work and dedication of more than a thousand physicists and engineers. It was enormously hard. Occasionally, people can work together to do nearly impossible things. The total effort was close to the effort it took to land a person on the Moon.
What does it matter to the average non-scientist?
I hope the public can share a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think one has to have a mathematical knowledge of the Higgs theory to appreciate that today we know something about how the universe works that we didn’t know before.
Is there a connection between this finding and astronomy?
Many of our ideas about the evolution of the very early universe are based on the actions of particles that behave like the Higgs particle. Primordial inflation, which posits an enormous growth spurt very early in the first second of the universe, is best understood due to the action of a Higgs-type field.
What was your reaction when you heard the news?
I heard the news while waiting for a plane at the airport in the Cayman Islands returning from vacation. A small television had BBC News on, and of the several hundred people in the waiting area, my wife and I seemed to be the only ones interested. I wanted to grab the person next to me and shout, “They found the Higgs!” But I’m afraid airport security would have escorted me out.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m surprised there has been very little comment about the fact that the discovery of the decade was outsourced to Europe. While I can appreciate the great discovery, and American scientists did take part, Europe has seized the lead in particle physics. It’s another scientific frontier abandoned by the United States.