The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, has been releasing portions of its research to the public for years. This week's massive 300 terabyte dump of Large Hadron Collider (LHC) data is the biggest yet by a long shot -- and it's all out there, open source, free for the exploration.
I got to join in on a great conversation this morning on Minnesota Public Radio's "The Daily Circuit", all about the Higgs Boson and what it means for the future of physics.
This is a fascinating issue. Finding the Higgs Boson (if that is, indeed, what scientists have done) means that all the particles predicted by the Standard Model of physics have now been found. But that's not necessarily good news for physicists. For one thing, it would have been a lot more interesting to break the Standard Model than to uphold it. For another, we're now left with a model for the Universe that mostly works but still has some awkward holes — holes that it might be hard to get the funding to fill.
Daily Circuit host Kerry Miller, Harvard physics chair Melissa Franklin, and I spent 45 minutes talking about what is simultaneously a beautiful dream and a waking nightmare for the physics world. And I got to make a "Half Baked" reference in a conversation about particle physics, so you know it's a good time, too.
Last Tuesday, particle physicists at CERN did not announce that they had found the Higgs Boson particle. Nor did they announce that they had not found the Higgs Boson. Instead, what we got was an update on the state of the research. But it's a really tantalizing update.
The Higgs Boson is a popular, but confusing, bit of physics. You know that reality is like a Lego model, it's made up of smaller parts. We are pieced together out of atoms. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks. (Quarks and electrons, as far as we know, are elementary particles, with nothing smaller inside.) When you're talking about the Higgs Boson, you're talking about the mass of these particles. Here's an imperfect analogy: A top quark, the most massive particle we know of, is like an elephant. An electron, on the other hand, is more like a mouse. And nobody knows for certain why those differences exist.
There is a theory, though. Back in the 1960s, a guy named Peter Higgs came up with the idea that all these particles exist in a field, and their mass is a reflection of how much they interact with that field. Heavy particles have a lot of interaction. Lighter particles are relatively standoffish. If this field exists, the Higgs Boson is the tiny thing it's made of. Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln has a really great video explaining this, where he compares the Higgs field to water, and Higgs Bosons to the molecules that make up water. Read the rest