Towards certainty

The search for the Higgs boson has been a search for closure. Now it is over — well,almost

Written by The Indian Express | Published: July 5, 2012 2:10:21 am

The search for the Higgs boson has been a search for closure. Now it is over — well,almost

The Nobel-winning physicist Leon Lederman,who published The God Particle in 1993,had apparently dubbed it the “goddamn” particle as the Higgs boson played so hard to get. The title was shortened by his editor for commercial reasons,and its evocative name made the particle a fugitive as notorious as Osama bin Laden. Sought for almost half a century,the last missing link in the Standard Model of particle physics has finally been found by the Large Hadron Collider. Well,almost,since science treasures certainties and the results are a fraction of a percentage point short of it.

The Higgs boson was postulated to account for mass,a fundamental quality without which our picture of the universe falls apart. Yesterday’s findings suggest that it exists,the arcana of charm quarks and bottom quarks is real,and physicists do not have to trash cherished theories. But the Higgs boson is part of a larger story,of a crisis of uncertainty in physics. The method of science requires experiment to keep pace with theory. The scientist observes a phenomenon,formulates a hypothesis to explain it,tests it in the lab and has a eureka moment. But in physics,theory and experiment have been out of step for decades. Schools like superstring theory offer startling predictions such as the existence of multiverses and the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for the development of life — intelligent design with a mathematical basis. Only experiments can establish if these theories actually describe reality,but with the laboratory lagging decades behind the blackboard,theoretical physics is peering into the void.

The discovery of the Higgs boson narrows the certainty deficit. And it was fitting that Peter Higgs,who proposed the particle,was in the audience in Geneva when the vindication of his life’s work was announced. Except that being an atheist,Higgs loathes that name — God particle. Meanwhile,the Indian scientist Satyendra Nath Bose,for whom bosons are named,is forgotten.

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