The Higgs boson has long been an obsession of the particle physics community. It was nicknamed the god particle because it was believed that this boson and its related field gave mass to all the other particles that have mass. If a particle has no mass (such as the photon) that meant that the particle did not interact with the Higgs field at all. If it has a lot of mass it must have a large interaction with the field.
The Higgs boson was named after one of the theorists who predicted it Peter Higgs (there were a total of six theorists who predicted it roughly in the same timeframe). The year was 1964 and particle physics was on the rise, a veritable zoo of particles being discovered and this particle was one yet another suggested one.
You would think that a proposed answer to several of the problems that particle physics was having at the time (such as why was the best theory proposing mass-less particles that actually have mass) would be well accepted but it was not. It took some time before particle physicists would accept the Higgs boson as an essential part of particle physics theory (called the Standard Model).
Once it was accepted, of course, it was up to this community of physicists to go out and find it. This turned out to be a long and hard road, with many false starts and false alarms that culminated in a multi-billion dollar machine (the Large Hadron Collider known as the LHC). Eventually two teams, both with thousands of scientists, were able to identify a particle which is as far as can be told the Higgs. Why did they spend all these years and dollars chasing this ghostly particle that doesn't even last for 1 second inside the machine?
The reason for chasing this particle to the ends of the earth (or at least to the ends of the detector) is for verification. The Standard Model had been one of the most successful models in physics, perhaps even science, except for one major thing. The Higgs boson helped to explain many things in the Standard Model and yet it was an unobserved particle. Questions began cropping up. Was the Standard Model correct? Did the Higgs exist? If not, this had many implications for physics, and the Standard Model would have to be replaced by something else, despite being so successful.
As time dragged on, the model was questioned more and more because this particle had yet to be seen. Perhaps driven by the incessant need to be correct, a 10 year building project led to the opening in 2008 of the LHC. It had to be shut down until late 2009 because of misalignment that led to a rupture inside the machine. After that it took lots of data runs from two competing groups to verify that there was a particle in existence at the predicted mass of the Higgs boson.
So what good has come out of all of this? Well, beyond the fact that a scientific theory may have been verified (they still have to work out a few details to make sure that the Higgs behaves as is expected), the advances at the LHC have actually increased the capabilities of cloud computing, a real world application that can be immediately implemented. Beyond that, no one really knows what we will be able to use this knowledge for some day, but I am sure that some crafty person will build some creative device based on it.
Chasing the Higgs is just one example of many in science of human ingenuity and creativeness. We should all be proud, even if we do not quite understand the results, that we are part of a group of beings that are capable of such feats.
Jeremie Fish lives in Wilmington and is a SUNY Plattsburgh graduate and Clarkson University graduate student.