We now know why the universe has structure. What next?by Frank Close / July 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
The discovery of the Higgs boson particle only takes us half way to replicating the extreme energy conditions of the Big Bang
July 4th witnessed not just the celebration of American independence from the Brits, but the discovery of the Higgs boson, the herald of how beauty and order emerged from the chaotic debris of the Big Bang. Why is the universe full of huge, interesting structures of galaxies, stars and planets, with microscopic fabrics of atoms and molecules, rather than some disordered hotchpotch?
Our best theories had posited that the debris from the Big Bang was like goo: massless particles flitting around hither and thither at the speed of light. But this model of mathematical perfection is not the universe that you and I know; it is the plaything of theorists. In the real world of particles which have mass, these theories worked only in restricted cases. The moment they were applied beyond the simplest approximation, nonsense erupted.
Something had to be changed, or added. But if you try changing even a few symbols in Einstein’s theory of relativity or quantum theory, the edifice collapses. How can you fix the problem without destroying the foundations of modern physics?
Nearly half a century ago, Peter Higgs and five other theorists, independently in the space of a few months, discovered the key. The price was that they had to assume that the universe is filled with a field of influence—today known as the Higgs field. The problem was that no one had ever seen any evidence for this all-pervading essence.
Alone among the sextet, Higgs pointed out a consequence of the theory: a particle with mass—the Higgs boson—should exist. This ephemeral subatomic lump had to be produced in an experiment and its properties measured. The challenges were immense: how to produce the boson, how to “beware of imitations” in the hordes of data, and how to respond to any surprises it revealed.