Physicists in the 1960s had mastered nuclear energy and probed the deepest mysteries of the universe, but they faced an odd and perplexing problem. The theory of quantum mechanics provided a simple and elegant explanation for subatomic particles and their properties — but only if the particles had no mass. Most real particles do have mass, though, which turned the equations into a clunky tangle.
The physicists came up with an explanation, called the Higgs field, that solved the problem, but there was one complication. If the field existed, it should occasionally generate a distinctive particle, called the Higgs boson. For decades, this particle eluded all search efforts. Finally, in 2012, an immensely powerful new “atom smasher” in Switzerland, the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, succeeded in producing and detecting a Higgs boson.
A Long and Winding Road
As Smithsonian magazine reported, this success after half a century of experimental effort paid off in 2013 with a belated Nobel Prize for physicists Peter Higgs (for whom the boson and field are named) and Francois Englert.
For Higgs, in particular, it was a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to a 49-year story. In 1964, he wrote the original proposal for what we now call the Higgs field, suggesting that mass need not be intrinsic to subatomic particles, which is what made a hash of the quantum mechanics equations. Instead, the particles’ mass might be an effect of the environment surrounding them, much as water resistance is an effect of the (watery!) environment surrounding fish.
The paper was turned down for publication. Nothing was wrong with Higgs’ math, but the editors regarded his theory as pure speculation “of no obvious relevance to physics.” If there’s one thing better than winning a Nobel Prize, it must be winning one for a theory that initially got turned down.
This wasn’t the only odd turn in the Higgs boson’s long journey from theoretical proposal to confirmed discovery. After that initial turndown, Higgs’ proposal soon got published in a revised form, and by the 1980s the Higgs field and boson were so well-established in theoretical physics that physics students were sometimes surprised to learn that they weren’t yet experimentally confirmed.
As the Los Angeles Times recounted, in 1993 physicist Leon Lederman, who had already won a Nobel Prize for other particle discoveries, wrote an article about the still-theoretical Higgs boson. He originally wanted to describe it as the “goddamn particle,” because its elusiveness was so frustrating to physicists. This was delicately shortened to God particle, a name that certainly sticks in people’s minds.
Alas, there is nothing specifically theological about the Higgs boson, even if it does help to fill in the scientific picture of creation, the Big Bang theory.
More Surprises in Store?
As Quanta magazine reports, study of the Higgs field and boson are ongoing. Mathematical models of the Big Bang indicate that in the first few moments of the universe’s expansion, the Higgs field had a value of zero, and nothing in the universe had any mass. Physicists are still not sure what caused the Higgs field to “switch on” just after the Big Bang, giving mass to particles and eventually causing them to form galaxies, stars and us.
The Higgs boson also figures in the search for the still-elusive “dark matter” that makes up about 85% of the mass of the universe, according to Phys.org. Currently we know nothing directly about it, and can only detect it at all due to its gravitational influence on galaxies and whole galaxy clusters. Physicists are currently exploring the possibility that some disintegrating Higgs bosons may produce dark matter as decay products.
All of which suggests that, in spite of its misleading popular name, the God particle may still have a few more surprises waiting for us.