I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
– Richard Feynman, in The Character of Physical Law
As Prof. Feynman, physicist and Nobel laureate, suggests, our intuition tends to be at a loss when we start to study quantum physics, the science of how matter and energy behave at atomic and smaller scales. And intuition gets hopelessly lost when we get down to the level of particle physics, which tries to describe the most fundamental building blocks of the universe. Some of these, in the Standard Model of particle physics, we may have at least heard of, like the photon or the electron. But then there are, for example, the particles called quarks. which make up protons and neutrons (among other things), come in six oddly-named varieties (up, down, strange, charm, top, and bottom), and whose name is a literary allusion to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, perhaps not the first book that would come to mind as a precise description of the physical world.
Until this week, one of the key particles in the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, had never been observed in the wild, though the theoretical prediction of its existence was made almost 50 years ago. However, as the New Scientist reports, physicists working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced that they had found highly significant evidence of the particle’s existence (it is very short-lived, and thus must be detected from its breakdown products). The Higgs boson is postulated to be the elementary quantum of the Higgs field, which according to the model is what gives many of the other particles mass. The Higgs boson was predicted by the theory to be quite massive itself, as elementary particles go, and it weighed in at 125-126 GeV (giga-electron volts), in the range predicted by the theory. (In particle physics, a particle’s mass is often measured in energy units; as Einstein famously demonstrated, mass and energy are equivalent: E = m c² .)
The Economist also has an interesting article on the discovery.
There is another, more personal, reflection on the discovery at Wired, by Dr. Stephen Wolfram, developer of the Mathematica software package, and of Wolfram|Alpha. (Readers may remember that I mentioned Dr. Wolfram’s comments on IBM’s Watson project and Jeopardy!.) I had not known, before reading the article, that Dr. Wolfram has also worked in particle physics. He considers whether the Higgs discovery is worth the approximately $10 billion it is estimated to have cost.
I think it could be justified almost just for the self-esteem of our species: that despite all our specific issues, we’re continuing a path we’ve been on for hundreds of years, systematically making progress in understanding how our universe works. And somehow there’s something ennobling about seeing what’s effectively a worldwide collaboration of people working together in this direction.
He also compares watching the Higgs announcement to his memories of staying up the watch the Apollo 11 moon landing, an experience I also remember vividly. The announcement, of course, lacked the obvious drama of the walk on the moon; yet it is still, in a certain sense, the same kind of really new thing that makes science so fascinating.