The Higgs particle

by Patrick Marsolek (Feb. 2012)

Recently there has been a lot of buzz in the scientific community about scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland who are zeroing in on the Higgs particle,a large theoretical particle that might be essential to our understanding of the universe. Scientists continue to crunch the data from previous experiments and the results are still not clear. This is expected to be an exciting year in the world of experimental and theoretical physics.

Proponents of various theories and beliefs are all commenting on whether we will actually find the Higgs particle and what that finding would mean. If it’s not found, Martinus Veltman, a nobel prize winning physicist has said, “it will be the end of particle physics.” If the Higgs is found, then many think it will solidify the Standard Model of physics, which has been the predominant model for the last 35 years. Others more philosophically inclined, such as Deepak Chopra, suggest that finding the Higgs will move science that much closer to a melding of science and spirituality.

In 1994 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman first called the Higgs the “God Particle”, much at the distaste of the physicists. English theoretical physicist Peter Higgs first described the Higgs particle, also known as the Higgs-Boson, as a necessary, physical manifestation of a theoretical field that pervades everything in the universe. Once again the scientists are telling us we may have reached the foundation of the physical universe. Do you recall that the ancient Greeks believed the universe was filled with a mysterious element called “ether” that filled the universe. That idea has long been discredited by science and yet here we are again, the circle goes around, we’ve come back around to a mysterious, all-pervasive “particle” that gives rise to everything else.

In the late 1800’s the field of physics was thought to be a mature science. Most thought there wasn’t much yet to explain, just a few rough edges. Atoms – meaning uncuttable – were at the heart of matter which was governed by Newtonian forces. But then the loose ends started unraveling. X-rays, gamma rays, radioactivity starting appearing in laboratories. Physicist J.J. Thomson discovered the electron – atoms suddenly had smaller parts. Thomson envisioned the atom as a kind of pudding with embedded electrons. But then Ernest Rutherford announced that atoms were mostly empty space with a tiny atom at the center.

The journey has continued inward into smaller and smaller regions, through less and less tangible constituents. Einstein’s theories of relativity shifted our understanding of the absoluteness of space and time merged them into space-time; matter bends space, light is a particle and a wave, energy and mass became interchangeable. Scientists and theorists are still on a downward, inward path into less firm terrain, where, with quantum physics, mind and matter can influence each other.  We are still fervently seeking the ultimate understanding of the material universe.

So what exactly is the Higgs and why are all the scientists looking for it? The current scientific theory, which pretty much explains why everything in the universe is the way it is, is called the Standard Model (SM). This was originally developed by a group of scientists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This model categorizes all fundamental particles into a few groups: leptons, consisting of electrons, muons, e-neutrino’s and others; Quarks, the building blocks of neutrons and protons; and Force Carriers, such as photons and gluons. (See graphic for the whole list.) The SM predicted all these particles and they’ve all been observed subsequently in experiments.

The problem with just these particles, is that they require mass to bring them together to interact. In order for them to interact, the SM proposes something called the Higgs field. This is a theoretical, imperceptible energy field which exists throughout the entire universe. As all the elementary particles travel through this field, they are slowed down by it, dragging them down and giving them mass. It is proposed that some particles have more mass because they interact more with the Higgs field, similar to the way some fish flow easily through water, and others don’t due to their different shapes. Some particles, like photons, don’t interact at all with the field and have no mass.

One interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that forces in fields are actually transmitted between objects. Thus if there is a Higgs field, then there must be a particle associated with it. The difficulty in finding it, is that the SM couldn’t predict what its mass would be and it has never been observed. The hypothetical Higgs particle is a virtual particle, millions of times smaller than the nucleus of an atom, which might be able to be coaxed to enter space time for the tiniest flash of a millisecond. Physicists certainly object to the term God Particle because of any hint of purpose, but also question whether  it can even be called a solid entity such as a particle.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN built the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to coax these virtual particles out of the quantum dimensions. CERN is an international organization (though it also refers to the LHC itself) which employs just under 2400 full-time employees, as well as almost 8,000 scientists and engineers representing 608 universities and research facilities and 113 nationalities. The LHC is a huge, seventeen mile long circular particle accelerator buried underground on the border of France and Switzerland which cost somewhere around $9 billion US dollars to build. It is in this building, parts of which are five stories tall, where scientists are conducting two experiments, CMS and ATLAS, hoping to finally prove the existence of the Higgs particle.

The LHC accelerates protons to near the speed of light. Huge magnets curve their path to follow the arc of the collider. Then the protons collide in one tiny spot in the middle of all the sensors at CMS and ATLAS in a high energy explosion. Energy coalesces and particles are formed. Particles degrade into other particles. Particle byproducts are detected. All of this is recorded by millions of sensors and the mass and existence of particles is calculated. If the Higgs is produced in the explosion, it decays very quickly into other particles. Scientists are not expecting to actually see it, rather they will see hints of the telltale signs of it’s path.

Through the last round of data crunching from the experiments the ATLAS and CMS researchers have narrowed down the potential mass of the Higgs to somewhere between 115 and 131 GeV (that’s Gigaelectron Volts – a proton has a mass of 1 GeV) and there are tantalizing hints around the 124 to 126 GeV range.

Both Atlas and CMS have found signals with nearly the same mass. Both findings have a statistical significance below 3 sigma: 1/1000 chance of anomalous result. All this has scientists very excited and this is what they’re cautiously telling the public. Yet, in order for these discoveries to be statistically acceptable to the scientific community, the statistical significance will have to be at least 5 sigma: 1 in 1,000,000 chance, the gold standard. So they continue to crunch the data. Everyone is looking expectantly towards this year’s experiments when the LHC will run with 14% more energy, colliding atoms at a force of eight million TeV (Trillion Electron Volts) all in the hope of providing a clearer picture of these subatomic forces with more statistical significance.

The LHC will shut down in December of this year for a twenty month overhaul. During this time, scientists will sort through the data collected. The LHC produces roughly 15 petabytes (15 million gigabytes) of data annually – enough to fill more than 1.7 million dual-layer DVDs a year. This data will take a while to sort. In case you didn’t know, CERN is largely responsible for the creation of the world wide web, initially as way to share and process such large amounts of data.

The whole world is waiting, watching, and speculating. One of the most provocative discoveries of quantum mechanics is that the very act of watching affects the observed reality. This was demonstrated in the minuscule world of waves and particles by a highly controlled experiment where electrons under observation change their "regular" wavelike behavior to particle-like. As we go even further into the depths of the quantum world with the experiments at LHC, are we not even more at risk of this observer effect?

What is then the likelihood that the detected traces of the Higgs field and particle are observer effects of the experiment and the mammoth machine behind it. The machine is not just the collider itself, but the whole system of belief that has generated the Large Hadron Collider. CERN has 10,000 employees and researchers working in coordination, looking for matter deeper in at the heart of the universe. How much of what we discover shows up because we are looking for it?

In a way, the LHC is the current temple of the faith of scientific materialism. Certainly the machine itself inspires awe, looking like a large living machine with the vaults of a cathedral. The scientists and the people look to this machine to provide explanations about our universe. And anyone who thinks these big machines are soulless contraptions might want to reconsider. They take on the qualities of a living organism to those that live and work in them.

If, when all the data is crunched, the Higgs is shown to exist with statistical significance what will it tell us? Since it is predicted by the Standard Model, it would further strengthen the acceptance of the model. Yet as successful as the SM has been, it has lots of holes. It doesn't encompass gravity. Nor does it provide a reason for why there was an excess of matter over dark matter after the Big Bang, allowing the Universe to come into being. The SM accounts for the behavior of just 4% of the Universe – “normal” matter. The rest, in the form of dark matter and dark energy, may be more potent than all gravity, radiation and stellar output combined, yet it’s a mystery. As Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, who just shared a Nobel Prize for a key discovery about how dark energy appears to affect distant galaxies, says, “I have absolutely no clue what dark energy is.”

Along with the mystery of dark matter there’s the philosophic implications of the tremendously improbable universe we are studying. Not only does the universe unexpectedly correspond to mathematical theories, it is self-organizing, all the way from cellular biology up to astrophysics, in unlikely ways. The physical constants of the universe seem finely tuned for the emergence of complexity and life. Slightly modify the strength of gravity, or the chemistry of carbon, or the ratio of the mass of protons and electrons, and biological systems become impossible. Slightly alter the proportions of matter to dark matter and the universe-ending Big Crunch comes too soon, or carbon isn’t produced, or suns and galaxies don’t even come into existence.

The wild improbability of a universe that allows us to be aware of it and where consciousness may even be important seems to demand some explanation. But having the universe be anthropocentric in character disquiets many researchers, since it suggests some kind of underlying purpose. In response, cosmologists have developed “multiverse” thinking or M-theory, which holds there are billions or even an infinite number of universes, all of which, through chance, received different physical laws. That is how we can find ourselves in a universe favorable to life and not have to rely on a creator or the meaning of improbability and the consciousness to observe it.

However, the multiverse theory can’t be scientifically tested. Other universes, by definition, are not accessible. The multiverse is beyond physics, just as inaccessible to the scientific method as the existence of heaven. Though experiments at the LHC are attempting to reveal signs of possible other universes, the verification of M-theory would move materialistic science even more dangerously close to a belief in something essentially non-proveable, requiring belief.

Particle physics, and theoretical physics for that matter, are reaching some challenging places. If the Higgs particle is ‘proven’ to exist, what does it tell us? That all matter and meaning arises because of a universal field of energy. It all arises out of nothing, and has a shape and form that is gloriously improbable. If Higgs doesn’t exist, it will lend credence to other alternate theories such as string theory, which proposes many multiple universes that might be even harder to prove to be true.

As Deepak Chopra and other spiritual thinkers have noted, the behavior of the quantum world is very similar to what Yogi’s have been studying internally in the mind and in consciousness. Before a thought stirs in the mind, there is emptiness and unformed silence. Once thoughts are activated, they become powerful and manifest. As above, so below. Thousands of minds together, have created the LHC, a $9 Billion dollar machine which brings matter out of nothing, making thought manifest and confirms a theory. Is this another manifestation of the observer effect – the influences of an all encompassing field that is connected to consciousness?

The discovery of the Higgs may move our understanding of the physical world one step closer to the unknowable. As Chopra has suggested, it’s confirmation would validate the existence of a field or a force that is “impersonal, intelligent, universal, invisible, yet manifest in the visible world” which could just as easily be labeled “consciousness.” It is interesting that many who see consciousness as being a primary part of the universe see validation in quantum physics, yet many, though certainly not all, in physics reject consciousness as having any significance.

It will be fascinating to see how these two camps might converge in the future. CERN will continue to explore the strange nature of quantum energy fields and particles, the nature of dark matter, and even hints of multiple dimensions with experiments at the LHC. Particle and theoretical physics already recognize the reality of virtual particles, non-locality, and indeterminacy, where things don't exist physically as they do in the outer world. Their existence is a fleeting display of tendencies, and the superposition of possibilities. As Chopra says, “All of these tendencies and qualities are tendencies of consciousness.” Perhaps we can revel in future discoveries that simultaneously reveal more about the universe as well as our own inner workings and our place in the universe.

Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, therapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He leads groups and teaches classes in extended human capacities, consciousness exploration, personal development, and  compassionate communication. He offers his services to businesses, individuals and families and in self-empowerment seminars. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis manual and A Joyful Intuition. See for more information.