Drama for science geeks: listening to the seminar held at CERN concerning the discovery of what seems to be the long-sought Higgs boson. Amongst the rounds of applause that accompanied the scientific presentation, the best moment of human drama might have been provided by a brief view of Peter Higgs wiping away a tear of joy for having lived long enough to go from being told in 1964 that his prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson was wrong to today’s announcement that data from the LHC is consistent with the existence of a 125 GeV Higgs boson.
In fact, the data so far only satisfy the conventional criteria (5 sigma threshold) for saying that this is the discovery of an approximately 125 GeV boson. More data will be required to determine how closely the properties of the observed boson match those of Standard Model (SM) predictions for a Higgs boson, but so far it is looking like a possible match between SM predictions and the observed properties of the new particle.
Long-sought. A major challenge for experimental physicists who have been trying to confirm existence of the Higgs Boson is, that when first conceived as a theoretical entity, it was not possible to predict the mass of this particle. In fact, understanding elementary particle mass has been one of the major quandaries facing the science of physics. In related news, cosmologists suspect that we have yet to discover the particles responsible for most of the mass of the universe (see dark matter).
SciFi. Previously, the weak bosons were found to have masses in the range of about 80-91 GeV. Asimov imagined that you could create a “nuclear intensifier”, a technological means of facilitating the mechanisms by which weak bosons mediate nuclear reactions. The figure to the left shows a neutron going through beta decay. I’ve used sodium-22 as a tool for measuring sodium ion movement through sodium channels. The isotope sodium-22 converts a proton to a neutron and emits a positron; the unstable parent isotope has a half-life of a couple of years. Neutrons and protons are about 1 GeV. If a “nuclear intensifier” could locally alter the Higgs Field and reduce the mass of weak bosons would that speed up nuclear reactions like the decay of sodium-22?
Like the short-lived “weak bosons”, a Higgs boson is very unstable and rapidly decays into combinations of other, lower energy particles. It is rare Higgs decay events that are observed by means of detectors such as ATLAS.
Final analysis for 10 years of data from the old Tevatron was able to point to the existence of a boson between 115 – 135 GeV, but that low power collider could only achieve about a 3 sigma observation.
During today’s CERN seminar, several scientists expressed awe at the power of their new collider, the efficiency of their detectors and the ability of thousands of collaborating physicists linked electronically around the world to rapidly analyze the vast amount of new data that was collected this year (the latest LHC run ended in mid-June), quickly pushing ATLAS and CMS project researchers across the 5 sigma threshold faster than they had dared dream. An inspiring international scientific/technical achievement!
While I listened to the CERN seminar today I was reminded of the first great technical collaboration that I became aware of: the NASA effort to send manned missions to the Moon. Neil Armstrong called the accomplishment of putting people on the Moon a giant leap for our species and today similar language was used to describe the (apparent) Higgs boson discovery. Watching the teary-eyed Peter Higgs react to today’s announcement of a new boson (apparently confirming Higgs’ 48-year-old prediction) got me thinking about what might be counted as the first prediction that humans could reach the Moon.
The Moon Particle (7 × 1022 kg). In 1865 the Jules Verne story From the Earth to the Moon was published. Verne imagined that chemical energy could defeat the relentless gravity field that pins us to the Earth. Verne imagined a powerful device that would launch a space craft to the moon, a device that he imagined as basically like a cannon shooting a projectile on a battle field. In 1903 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky described how “reaction” (rocketry) could be used to explore outer space. It was not until 1926 that Goddard‘s work with liquid rockets demonstrated a practical and technologically feasible way to reach the Moon. By 1969 there were human foot prints on the Moon.
Apparently, the 125 GeV (Higgs?) boson is the lowest mass scalar boson that can be coaxed to arise from the Higgs Field. Theoretically, it is the interaction of particles like quarks with the Higgs Field that endows the atomic components of our bodies with inertial mass. In some proposed extensions of the Standard Model, the movement of particles with mass through a gravitational field (such as the 1 g field of Earth) involves a hypothetical boson with no mass, the graviton. Science fiction authors have sometimes imagined ways to defeat the Higgs Field and allow easier movement of matter across the vast expanses of outer space.
Defeat Inertia. Some of the first science fiction stories that I read were the Lensman stories of E. E. “Doc” Smith. In one story, a Lens had to be quickly transported across space and delivered from one space craft to another. Smith imagined a type of inertial stasis field that could isolate matter from the effects of acceleration. While still inside an inertial stasis field, the precious Lens was handed over from one crew to the other, then it was packed inside a shock-absorbing chamber and its inertia allowed to match that of the recipient space craft. A huge amount of stored energy was released, but the super-tough Lens emerged unharmed from the chamber, ready to perform magical mind enhancement on its recipient.
Similarly, Jack Vance often used an imagined “intersplit”, a technology for avoiding inertia and allowing space craft to be sent through space at faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, powered by tiny amounts of thrust.
As far as we know, when our universe cooled off and went through spontaneous symmetry breaking events to achieve the current state of physical existence, we ended up in a domain where the Higgs Field is ever-present through the universe. Only in science fiction can we defeat the Higgs Field or gravity for the purpose of creating imagined technologies that allow wonders such as anti-gravity and FTL space travel.
Dimensional Engineering. In Exodemic stories, I have fun imagining new types of bosons called “hierions“. I often pretend that hierions allow for faster-than-light communications across interstellar distances. The basic idea is: if some bosons such as photons can travel across the universe at the speed of light while others have mass (like the “weak bosons”) and can’t travel out of a nucleus then maybe there are as-yet-undiscovered bosons that allow for the transmission of information through space at faster-than-light speeds. Usually this is accomplished by a large amount of hand waving and the wonders of as-yet unseen “extra dimensions“. I pretend that it took the Huaoshy about 250,000 years to complete their study of physics. Along the way, they found many elementary particles that lie beyond our current theories and technological means to observe.
If the 125 GeV boson is confirmed to be a Higgs boson after the LHC ramps up to full power (2015?) then it will have taken about 50 years of effort by experimental physicists to begin to confirm the current theoretical mechanism for how particles such as quarks attain mass.
That 50 year-long delay reminds me of what happened after Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the idea of evolution by natural selection. In the mid 1800s nothing was known about the molecular mechanism by which inherited traits can be passed from one generation to the next. Around 1910 Morgan and his collaborators began to construct the first genetic maps, connecting particular phenotypic traits such as eye shape or color to particular parts of chromosomes.
In 1953 it started to become clear how the physical structure of DNA molecules in chromosomes can hold instructions that allow cells to make RNA and protein molecules. We now have tools that allow us to study biological evolution in terms of how DNA molecules in chromosomes change through time. We continue to become more sophisticated in understanding how protein-coding genes and regulatory RNAs shape the phenotypes of living organisms.
150 years after Darwin we are deep into exploring the mechanisms by which living organisms evolve through time and we have a start on genetic engineering and the creation of artificial life. With any luck, another 100 years will bring some startling new technology for “bosonic engineering” and we will look back on some science fiction author like Asimov as the first person to imagine and write SciFi about such a possibility.
Related reading –
How massive is the Higgs? More massive than an iron atom (50 Gev) but not as massive as the top quark (173 GeV).