Discovery, At Last?
July 3, 2012 -- It seems that the Higgs boson just keeps bringing out the crazy in people. As we get closer and closer to cornering the secretive particle, there's been no shortage of myths, rumors and just downright odd (yet physically sound) theories to add some entertaining sideshows to the proceedings.
So, this week, physicists who are working tirelessly with CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland, have a big announcement. But will it be the announcement we've all been waiting for? In typical quantum physics style, a definite discovery announcement will be unlikely -- but we are slowly, yet surely, closing in on the particle's hiding place.
While we wait for that precious "5-sigma" result, here are some peculiar Higgs stories and odd boson facts that have entertained, mystified and confused us ever since the LHC revved up its superconducting magnets.
Not the "God Particle"
Let's get this crime of physics out of the way first. The hunt for the Higgs boson has nothing to do with God. The Higgs is not a divine entity; it is a gauge boson -- i.e. it is a particle that mediates mass and therefore endows all matter with (you guessed it) mass.
(And no, that's not mass as in "religious service mass;" it's mass, a "property of matter mass.")
So why the heck do we see, with alarming regularity, the "God Particle" reference plastered across every tabloid newspaper?
Ever since Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon M. Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi gave the elusive particle the tongue-in-cheek moniker in their 1993 book "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?" mainstream media grabbed hold of the nickname as if physicists were looking for The Almighty himself. Alas, the hunt for the Higgs has nothing to do with God, but it is a critical step forward in our understanding of what gives all matter in the Universe its mass.
Of course, if the tabloid press mentions the "God Particle" as an ironic or sarcastic reference, that's fine. Physicists have a sense of humor too.
There's a Higgs Family?!
In 2010, physicists at the DZero collaboration at Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator came up with an interesting proposition: What if there are actually five different types of Higgs bosons? Perhaps old Higgsy has a mom, dad and twin sisters!
Known as the "two-Higgs doublet model," the mere hint that there may be more Higgs particles to hunt down will likely make any particle physicist sweat, but it would explain some of the strange science results coming from the DZero collaboration.
According to Discovery News' Jennifer Ouellette, this has potential implications for the "God Particle" misinterpretation:
"Along with many physicists, I hate the term 'god particle' to describe the Higgs," says Ouellette. "Fermilab's Leon Lederman coined the term over a decade ago, and it's been misleading innocent civilians ever since into thinking physicists are trying to prove or disprove the existence of god or something. But it did give the blog 80 Beats the best line yet about these new results: 'If the Higgs boson is the God Particle, then some particle physicists just turned polytheistic.'"
It Has An App
Like everything else in the Universe, the Higgs particle has its own app. Naturally, LHC physicists are the villains of the game and you have to use other Standard Model particles to hide the Higgs from detection.
You may not need a Ph.D. to play the game, but a vague understanding of quantum particles might help.
God Hates It
It seems that the longer a particle evades detection, the more stir-crazy some scientists become. This may not be an established law of physics, but it certainly seems to be the case for one distinguished physicist who, in 2009, published a lighthearted paper about why the Higgs is so difficult to find. The upshot: God hates the Higgs boson.
What's with all the 'God' references?
In a nutshell, as the Higgs boson can transmit a signal back in time when it is created by a particle accelerator, this signal will ultimately sabotage the accelerator before the thing has even been built. Nature, and therefore "God," doesn't want old Higgsy to see the light of day.
Dennis Overbye of the New York Times summarized the situation quite nicely: "...the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one."
It's a Time-Traveling Assassin
Reading like the plot of Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1994 movie "Timecop," the Higgs boson's time-traveling capabilities may be used for evil. Yes, it could go back in time to kill your grandfather. Or, at least, a signal utilizing the Higgs' time-traveling capabilities could be used to send a signal back in time to an assassin who is waiting for the signal to start a killing spree. Actually, that might really be the sequel to Timecop.
This time-traveling Higgs theory was thought up by Vanderbilt University theoretical physicists Tom Weiler and Chui Man who admit their idea "is a long shot," but it "doesn't violate any laws of physics." Yay physics!
Based on the theory that when a Higgs particle is generated a Higgs "singlet" particle is also generated at the same time, this singlet can utilize the "fifth dimension" of spacetime to zip through time and travel into the past. According to Weiler and Man's calculations, this could allow a Higgs singlet signal to be sent back in time, and could therefore be used for all kinds of freaky shenanigans.
It's a Social Media Superstar
It may come as no surprise that the Higgs boson has become something of a celebrity. Even though the vast majority of the public have no clue what the Higgs boson actually is, the hypothetical particle has become more popular than Lindsey Lohan and, for a time, was a trending topic alongside Lady Gaga and... Santa. True story.
As we've already mentioned, the myth of the Higgs has often been a little more exaggerated than the truth, so in the spirit of "going viral," old Higgsy had its own meme on Twitter. Using the hashtag #HiggsRumors, hundreds of Higgs fans -- evidently exacerbated by the flurry of half-truths and rumored discoveries -- invented their own rumors about the elusive particle.
It all began when @drskyskull tweeted: "I hear the Higgs boson once shot a man just to watch him die. #HiggsRumors" The rest, as they say, is social media history.
CERN is expected to make its announcement about the possible Higgs boson confirmation on July 3. For updates, keep an eye on Discovery News and the @Discovery_Space Twitter feed.
MORE ARTICLES BY IAN O'NEILL