Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The physics of mass, charge and media spin

The Higgs boson should not be called "the God particle," says Marc Merlin, director of Atlanta Science Tavern. "A better name for it might be 'the peace particle.' It's really a testament to international cooperation that transcends politics." Image: CERN.

By Carol Clark

It’s too early to know for sure whether a newly discovered subatomic particle is the long sought-after Higgs boson, but one thing is clear: A lot of people outside of particle physics are interested.

CERN, a multinational research center in Geneva, generated worldwide buzz July 4 by announcing its Large Hadron Collider had produced data showing the existence of a “Higgs-like” particle.

“People are fascinated by the big questions of the universe,” says Marc Merlin, director of Atlanta Science Tavern, an informal group of science enthusiasts.

The Large Hadron Collider, a 38,000-ton underground device that accelerates and collides protons, is “like a time machine,” Merlin says. “Not only can it tell you the nature of the microscopic world now, it also reveals the universe as it was when it was just getting started,” a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Merlin graduated from Emory with a degree in physics. After going on to earn a masters in the subject at the University of Pennsylvania, he became a computer programmer, but remains passionate about physics.

Amid growing hints that CERN was closing in on the elusive particle, Merlin gave an Atlanta Science Tavern talk on the Higgs boson in May that filled a private room at Java Vino coffee shop. An encore of the talk was scheduled in June for a much larger room at Manuel’s Tavern, and the waiting list quickly grew to 140. That led to scheduling a third Higgs boson talk, for Saturday, July 21.

The Higgs boson explains only part of the mass of a proton, which also involves the action of quarks and gluons. Image: Fermilab.

“Maybe the third one will be the charm,” Merlin says. He readily admits that he is not an expert in particle physics. “I’ve got a big challenge, because I’m going to have to go over all the information from the CERN news conference and update my presentation.” Merlin has already posted "Checking the Higgs Arithmetic" on his blog.

The Higgs boson is the last missing particle from the Standard Model of physics. According to the model, the Higgs boson plays a role in giving mass to everything. “That’s incredibly fundamental,” says Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz. “It’s part of the story of how protons, neutrons and quarks came together and made us.”

Whether the particle is the Higgs boson, or something entirely new and unexpected, the find is momentous, Merlin agrees. “It’s one of the most important discoveries for physics in the past 50 years.”

Neither Perkowitz or Merlin, however, believes that the Higgs boson deserves the title “key to the universe,” as many headlines have proclaimed.

“That’s a bit of hype,” Perkowitz says.

The Higgs boson completes the picture of the Standard Model, but the Standard Model is far from comprehensive, lacking explanations for gravity, dark matter and dark energy, Merlin notes. He’s especially irked by the Higgs boson nickname “the God particle.”

Marc Merlin sees CERN as a kind of sandbox for learning international cooperation on a mammoth scale. Image: CERN.

“It’s misleading, and it sounds too mysterious,” he says. “I’m committed to the demystification of the Higgs boson. A better name for it might be ‘the peace particle.’ It’s really a testament to international cooperation over several generations to develop knowledge that transcends politics.”

Ironically, it was the atomic bombs of World War II that brought big science to the fore in ways it never had been before, Merlin says. CERN formed shortly after the war ended. “Since the 1950s, we’ve had these trans-national collaborations slowly but surely developing theories and models and experiments for particle physics. More than 100 nations are involved with CERN, and that’s a remarkable thing in a world fraught with divisions of religion, ethnicity and politics.”

The benefit of such cooperation extends far beyond particle physics, Merlin says.

“One of the triumphs of the search for the Higgs boson is an international computer grid, involving physicist programmers from all over the world, who have come together to do the number crunching involved,” he says.

Merlin thinks of CERN as a kind of sandbox for learning international cooperation on a mammoth scale. “It shows what we can do when we put our hearts and minds together, and it could serve as a prototype for addressing the dislocations that are going to occur with global warming.”

Fantastic light: From science fiction to fact

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