Nobel for Higgs Idea: Why it Matters and What, if Anything, it Has to Do with God.
Higgs the cat is enjoying a catnip cigar in celebration the 2013 Nobel Prize just awarded to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for the theory that predicted the recently-discovered Higgs Boson, which is Higgs' namesake particle.
Where did this Higgs Boson notion come from and why did Higgs, Engler and a handful of other physicists bother to come up with their theory? There was, at the root of it, a big puzzle. The best description I've found of the problem comes from a recent Smithsonian Magazine story by physicist Brian Greene:
Nearly a half-century ago, Peter Higgs and a handful of other physicists were trying to understand the origin of a basic physical feature: mass. You can think of mass as an object's heft or, a little more precisely, as the resistance it offers to having its motion changed. Push on a freight train (or a feather) to increase its speed, and the resistance you feel reflects its mass. At a microscopic level, the freight train's mass comes from its constituent molecules and atoms, which are themselves built from fundamental particles, electrons and quarks. But where do the masses of these and other fundamental particles come from?
When physicists in the 1960s modeled the behavior of these particles using equations rooted in quantum physics, they encountered a puzzle. If they imagined that the particles were all massless, then each term in the equations clicked into a perfectly symmetric pattern, like the tips of a perfect snowflake. And this symmetry was not just mathematically elegant. It explained patterns evident in the experimental data.
But—and here's the puzzle—physicists knew that the particles did have mass, and when they modified the equations to account for this fact, the mathematical harmony was spoiled. The equations became complex and unwieldy and, worse still, inconsistent.
You can read the rest here.
The theory was testable. It predicted that by concentrating enough energy, physicists could observe the fleeting emergence of a particle with specific properties. That was the Higgs Boson – bosons being a whole category of particles. The discovery of the Higgs was announced July 4, 2012. It was a big deal here in the Philadelphia region, since big groups of physicists from Penn and Rutgers contributed to the discovery.
Back then, Higgs the cat wrote about it for Philly.com. You can read it here, or skip to my favorite part, where Higgs consults physicist Victor Stenger about what the Higgs Boson might or might not have to do with God. I'm FF, posing the questions:
FF:Wasn't it awfully nice of the universe to give us a Higgs field so that we could have planets and other useful forms of matter?
Higgs: Essential as the Higgs field appears to be, we really don't know if our set of particles and fields represent the only recipe for a livable universe, said Victor Stenger, a physicist and author of a number of books including The Fallacy of Fine Tuning. Fine tuning is the notion that the constants of nature are tuned just right to make the universe nice for us, as if the hand of God were writing the parameters of physics.
Stenger said his calculations show there's some leeway in the constants of nature – they don't have to be exactly what they are. The appearance of design in physics is as much an illusion as it is in the biological world, Stenger said.
Rutgers' Strassler compares our situation to earlier generations trying to understand whether the distances between the solar system's planets and the sun were set by some kind of overarching law that made it impossible for them to be otherwise. Now we know there are millions of other solar systems, and ours is one of umpteen possibilities.
Physicists, he said, don't know whether some deeper and more elegant idea will explain the properties of the 17 known particles and various forces and fields or whether we got some of our particular physical parameters by accident.
Science is by and large open to the notion that there could exist different universes, or regions of the universe with different physical constants and laws, with ours just one of many possibilities. Stenger sees this as more reasonable than the assumption that our visible corner of the universe is all there is.
He's currently working on a book that will trace the thread of atomist thought from ancient Greece to the Large Hadron Collider and the opposition the idea has faced. Enemies of atomism worried that Democritus' view of everything as atoms and void left no place for supreme beings to exist above and beyond matter and physical law. And some people feel the need for supreme beings to give life purpose.
But an atomist world doesn't have to be meaningless, said Stenger. "We're free to find our own purpose."
Thanks for letting me express my thoughts. Higgs