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Particle matters

The process that found the Higgs boson can yield new technology of practical importance

Written by New York Times | Published: July 17, 2012 1:13:22 am

The process that found the Higgs boson can yield new technology of practical importance
Steven Weinberg

The July 4 announcement that the “Higgs boson” had been discovered at the CERN laboratory in Geneva made news around the world. Why all the fuss? New discoveries of elementary particles have been made from time to time without attracting all this attention. It is often said that this particle provides the crucial clue to how all the other elementary particles get their masses.

There seems no doubt that a new electrically neutral,unstable particle had been discovered,but is it the Higgs boson? So far,only a few decay modes have been observed,and though the new particle seems to decay like a Higgs boson,more must be done to pin this down. Also,if the new particle is the Higgs boson,it would have to be like a knuckleball in baseball; unlike all other known elementary particles,it would have no spin. This too must be tested. These are the cautious words you would expect to hear from a prudent physicist. But I have been waiting for the discovery of the Higgs boson since 1967,and it’s hard for me now to doubt that it has been found.

So what? Even if the particle is the Higgs boson,it is not going to be used to cure diseases or improve technology. This discovery simply fills a gap in our understanding of the laws of nature that govern all matter,and throws light on what was going on in the early universe. It’s wonderful that many people do care about this sort of science,and regard it as a credit to our civilisation.

Of course,not everyone feels this way,and even those who do have to ask whether learning the laws of nature is worth the billions of dollars it costs to build particle accelerators. This question is going to come up again,since our present Standard Model is certainly not the end of the story. A case can be made for this sort of spending,even to those who don’t care about learning the laws of nature. Exploring the outer frontier of our knowledge of nature is in one respect like war: It pushes modern technology to its limits,often yielding new technology of great practical importance.

For instance,the new particle was produced at CERN in collisions of protons that occur at a rate of over a hundred million collisions per second. To analyse the flood of data produced by all these collisions requires real time computing of unmatched power. Also,before the protons collide,they are accelerated to an energy over 3,000 times larger than the energy contained in their own masses while they go many times around a 27-kilometre circular tunnel. To keep them in their tracks requires enormously strong superconducting magnets,cooled by the world’s largest source of liquid helium. In previous work at CERN,elementary particle physicists developed a method of sharing data that has become the World Wide Web.

On a longer time scale,the advance of technology will reflect the coherent picture of nature we are now assembling. At the end of the 19th century physicists in England were exploring the properties of electric currents passing through a near vacuum. Although this was pure science,it led to our knowledge of the electron,without which a large part of today’s technology would be impossible. If these physicists had limited themselves to work of obvious practical importance,they would have been studying the behaviour of steam boilers.

The writer is a professor in the physics and astronomy departments at the University of Texas at Austin,and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

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