Op-Ed: Elucidating Higgs

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 9:17pm

I don’t spend most Saturdays around a lecture hall, but this past March, I made an exception. I had noticed a Facebook event for the Saturday Morning Physics talk series titled “Higgs and the Beginning of the Universe,” to be given by Bibhushan Shakya, a researcher here at the University. It piqued my curiosity. I couldn’t believe it when I arrived early and yet found the largest lecture hall in the Weiser building (formerly Dennison) full, and the overflow lecture hall next door, equally as large, full as well, a total of more than 500 people. Most in this crowd, it seemed, were beyond their student years. Apparently for many, Saturday Morning Physics is a weekend staple, and some have been attending since its inception in 1995.

Some of the facts about Higgs I already knew. The discovery of the Higgs Boson, as it’s called, was predicted by a physicist named Peter Higgs back in 1964. It was finally confirmed in 2012 by the large team of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, where experiments are performed by smashing together particles, smaller than the size of atoms, at a speed that approaches the speed of light. At the time of the announcement, it made mainstream media headlines, dubbed as the “The God Particle.” Why the name? Many tiny Higgs Bosons, within the Higgs Field, impart the property of mass upon all objects in the universe, and the ability for them to interact through gravity. “The God Particle” is responsible for forming matter into galaxies, stars and the planet that has provided us with the exact necessities for life.

At this talk, I learned new things about Higgs, such as the answer to how the Higgs field gives matter its mass. Think of a shoreline where there are several different kinds of boats moving about. Some boats, like jet skis, barely skim across the surface of the water. Larger boats, maybe the size of a cruise ship, are actually substantially submerged underneath the water. As a consequence, the jet ski can move around more quickly than the cruise ship, but it wouldn’t be able to move as fast as, say, an airplane, which doesn’t need to touch the water at all. The amount of water they touch the water gives them different properties.

The same concept applies for Higgs. Some objects, like planets, which have a lot of matter, interact with the Higgs field more strongly than other objects, like snowflakes, that have relatively less matter. And like the airplane in the analogy, a photon, or particle of light, doesn’t even interact with the Higgs field, enabling it to travel at a much faster speed. The amount by which objects interact with the Higgs field determines how much mass they contain and how much gravitational force they have.

I commend Dr. Shakya; he’s built a career in studying theoretical physics, earning degrees at Stanford in physics and philosophy, and a Ph.D. from Cornell. As a graduate student studying biomedical engineering, I’m not unfamiliar with science, though theoretical particle physics doesn’t pertain much to my own field. His talk really challenged me, but it also fed my curiosity. I’ve found it fascinating to consider and discuss the big questions in science, and learning about “The God Particle” serves as food for thought.

I would imagine that many Michigan students have an intellectual curiosity about something unrelated to their own field. People shouldn’t be completely siloed in their one specific area of study. It’s important to find ways to address those other curiosities and to make them a priority. Learning about something that I’m genuinely curious about, especially when I don’t know much about it, can be truly gratifying.

I’ll conclude with my biggest takeaway thought from the talk. Higgs explains something as small as why objects fall when dropped, but also, on the cosmic scale, the makeup of the universe and why it is still expanding in size. It explains how it might eventually stop expanding, and that it might actually begin to contract back to its infinitesimal size at the time of the Big Bang, a theoretical phenomenon known as the Big Crunch. Assuming humans don’t succumb to climate change, to Earth’s engulfment by our expanding sun or some other, more immediate threat to our survival, preventing the Big Crunch might be the ultimate challenge for our species.

If that sounds grim, it luckily won’t become an issue for at least tens of billions of years. Yet, according to Forbes in 2012, from the contributions of several countries, $13.25 billion was spent to conduct experiments at the Large Hadron Collider that helped discover Higgs. Peter Woit, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, wrote in a blog post that, while small in comparison to the expenditures on military and biomedical research in the United States, hundreds of millions of dollars are still spent by our own government and private foundations to fund theoretical physics research.

But why would these establishments provide funding for theoretical physics when climate change and other issues are far more imminent threats? I think it suggests that we, as humans, can be irrationally curious. Or maybe, preventing the end of the universe is a problem that really will take several billions of years to solve, and we can breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve already begun to consider it now