Mil gaya bhagwan ka ‘kan’! (Found the God Particle)

higgs-boson1
Mil gaya bhagwan ka 'kan'! (Found the God Particle) 1
An artistic impression of the Higgs-Boson particle discovery by CERN

That was how the prime time headline read in a popular Hindi news channel. ‘God Particle’ has captured news space following CERN’s discovery of Higgs Boson particle, the particle which physicists believe lays at the core of The Big Bang. Media, and I need not explain why, is holding on to the terminology of ‘God Particle’like a child getting a candy. The fancy term was coined by Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate, indicating the divinity aspect of science. (‘kan’, for those who are unfamiliar is the Hindi for particle).

The first brush of a large swathe of people to God Particle must have come from Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, where the antimatter, church, and thereby science and religion played the backdrop of the gripping book. And that such a particle which now is claimed to have been found or characterized with high precision, after it was proposed way back in the 1960’s, has caught people’s imagination.

So what in simple words would be god particle or more correctly Higgs Boson? In what non-physicists can understand is that the electrons and protons (yes we have been bombarded with those since high school) have obtained their mass have from some other sub atomic particle. That this sub atomic particle in its course of movement, in a field, gets attracted by other sub atomic particles and help them gain weight. The particle also in the process gains mass. The extrapolation of this theory goes well into beginning of matter.

So far so good. Physicists at CERN have however emphasized that it is not going to affect the average person in any way. This discovery is to understand the beginning of the universe, or how mass is attributed to particles, or the interplay of subatomic particles and such theories. What is particularly a point of criticism is the amount of pounds spent in arriving at these conclusions. A staggering figure in recessionary times.

Do we need to discover the Higgs boson, or the god particle, or the elusive one at such cost is the question. Funding for research is highly essential for newer discoveries that would help in the betterment of the human race. There are also plenty of research done for finding some answers which may not in the end benefit directly humans or animals but would satiate some questions. Higgs boson is about the latter. It may not change our daily lives, it may still take another decade or two to actually distinguish the molecule, but it clarifies some questions like ‘how did it all start?’ Millions of pounds which could feed billions for years to find some answers, is it justified?

The media owing to its need to sensationalize and the lack of scientific knowledge have painted this news in various lights. While not many in the media have been able to explain Higgs Boson to the average person, it has been able to catch on to God Particle and convey to masses the religious implication of a scientific discovery. The right question that it should be asking is about the coexistence of science and divinity.

It is the philosophical questions, like ‘Who are we’? ‘Where did we come from?’, ‘What is our purpose on earth?’ that humans have asked since time immemorial. And the answers have been sought in that particular domain earlier and in science later. That the answer seeking can become such a costly affair, especially when translation into anything meaningful is nowhere in sight, that more questions than answers get added.

About Sambit Dash 30 Articles
Other than teaching Biochemistry to undergraduate students of medicine i write, i research, i speak, i read...and i am passionate about these activities

3 Comments

  1. dear wannabe physicist, your enthusiasm about the discovery s certainly genuine. reseach certainly, including in my field takes time to translate to real world, but then there has to be a certain line drawn at the magnitude of it. higgs boson would do what in the future (need not be near) do you think? We laymen would be benefited by such a discussion. And yes, training professional doctors or engineers have a direct correlation of translating it to service of mankind, in some way or the other..

    • Unfortunately, the fact remains that for science to progress, phenomenal investments have to be made, both in terms of money and time. There have been a few notable men and women of science, who have made unbelievable progress while not even working primarily as a scientist (Albert Einstein was a patent clerk when he propounded the theory of relativity), but for the most part, scientific progress doesn’t take place so conveniently. Where exactly to draw the line, is a subjective topic and people will have different opinions about it.

      I hope you include me among the laymen, since I am not an actual physicist by education (hence the wannabe :P)… What I do know (as general knowledge, no formal proofs unfortunately) is that if the Higgs Boson particle’s existence is confirmed, then the standard model will be able to be extended to energies above 1000 GeV (Giga Electron Volt… 1 Electron Volt is 1.6*10^-19 J). Basically, when it comes to particle physics, quantum mechanics rules. There are no fixed trajectories or boundaries in quantum mechanics. QM is based on probability and what we have is the probability of something happening or not happening. Thus, instead of discrete events, particle physics concerns itself with the statistical properties of the events. As we know, the sum of all probabilities within a universe should be 1 (in other words, probability is a normalized function). For a standard model without the Higgs Boson Particle, this normalization breaks down above 1000 GeV. Thus, the sum of all possibilities becomes 1, meaning that the results are absurd. The Higgs Boson permits this fault to be corrected. If the Higgs Boson particle is found, it’d mean that the experiments above 1000 GeV will be at least mathematically sound (they may or may not be a correct description of nature, however). Any discrepancies observed after that would mean that there’s some new aspect of physics at play, rather than some problems with the existing model.

      The practical impact of the Higgs Boson particle is ambiguous. Some say that since the Higgs Boson particle controls mass, if the stability can be improved, then there could be applications where it’d be used for weapons or for powering space ships. If this is the case, it’d take centuries at least, considering how costly the LHC currently is. There would have to be much more economic means of producing HBP, if this technology is to exist.

      Perhaps another aspect that has gone unnoticed is that the sheer magnitude of the Large Hadron Collider and the complexity of it has created fringe benefits in other engineering disciplines. There has been considerable work done in the computational engineering, for example. Scientific endeavour in one area hardly ever fails to produce positive side-effects in other disciplines.

  2. Yes, it is justified. If the money spent in such research were not spent, I doubt any of that money would go to the poor kids in Africa. The money would be spent either on: a) Developing weapons b) Some form of financial instrument which would probably be a cause for a recession sometime in the future.

    It is true that the Higgs Boson particle’s discovery wouldn’t affect the average man or even some of the elite, like highly trained doctors or engineers, in any way. At least not for at least a few decades, since it takes a long time for scientific discoveries to get translated into engineering applications (especially in the world of physics).

    The average man will not even be able to understand the meaning of the god particle. There have been a lot of posts on Facebook regarding the Higgs Boson particle. All of them have been analogies (and jokes). Of course, an analogy conveys no true knowledge and only rewords a known general fact (known without any knowledge about the proofs, assumptions or implications that is) into a more memorable anecdote (What is the Higgs Boson? It’s a particle that confers mass. What does the “cocktail analogy” tell us? Nothing significantly more.).

    However, does the “god” of the “god particle” refer to the divine god which most people believe in? I always thought that the “god” referred to the fact that the universe couldn’t exist without direct intervention of the particle. The particle provides mass, and as gravity (which is dependent on mass) is essential to the formation of stars, galaxies and planets, it is the Higgs Boson particle which is responsible for life on Earth.

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