To: Rolf-Dieter Heuer
Director General of European Organization for Nuclear Research
Congratulations on establishing evidence that the Higgs boson particle exists. The device central to this immensely important discovery is the large hadron collider (LHC). This is the largest and most complex machine yet assembled by mankind. Located more than 300 feet beneath the French-Swiss border (mostly on the French side), it has been designed to accelerate subatomic particles into each other at temperatures thousands of times hotter than our sun—conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old (“the big bang”).
Construction on the LHC began in 1994, consumed more than $10 billion and will provide lifetime employment for thousands of physicists from around the world. Even now, the LHC has only been able to run at half power, which makes the recent discovery of evidence of the existence of the Higgs particle all the more amazing. This discovery not only validates the standard model of particle physics (a theory concerning nuclear interactions, which mediate the dynamics of the known subatomic particles), but validates the supremacy of man’s ability to reason.
If our basic understanding of the universe is correct and explained with reference to the standard model, then there must be an explanation for the phenomenon of mass. A number of physicists, including Peter Higgs in 1966, predicted that a field existed that permeated all of space and that particles moving through this field, similar to pebbles moving through molasses, would take on the characteristics of mass in relation to its “resistance” in moving through the field. In quantum physics, all fields are associated with particles and thus the Higgs field, would be associated with a Higgs particle. The only difficulty with this elegant theory was that there was absolutely no proof that such an invisible force field, or its associated invisible particle, existed.
All efforts—which basically consist of taking subatomic particles and crashing them into one another—had failed to produce any evidence at all of this invisible force or particle. This is one of the reasons one physicist, in frustration, frequently referred to the Higgs particle as the “God**** particle.” It is not a theological reference, in spite of some overheated claims in popular media. The Higgs particle exists; I’ll leave it to others to argue the existence of a deity.
Two teams of 3,000 nuclear physicists each, using thousands of computers, did an analysis of approximately 800 trillion proton-proton collisions over the last two years to confirm the evidence of the Higgs particle. These results meet the so-called “five sigma” gold standard for discovery in physics; essentially one chance in 3.5 million that the results are a result of random fluctuation. Professor Peter Higgs himself, at the age of 83, was present at the Higgs announcement on July 4.
It is a moment of great celebration when human intellect—and pure intellect—is successful. That we as a group of nations could cooperate on the building and successful operation of the most complicated machine ever built is an equal ground for celebration. But I have a wish for a somewhat different result.
With the growth of nuclear research around the world and the continued search for the particles that would fully establish the standard model (or discover some totally new physics), the United States built Fermilab and later sought to expand nuclear research by building the superconducting super collider (SSC). A congressional fight broke out between Minnesota, Texas, and other states to receive the initial Congressional appropriation to build the SSC.
Ultimately, the location of the SSC was determined to be in Waxahachie, Texas. At the end of 1993, appropriations for the SSC were cancelled as a result of political infighting and austerity measures. So the United States gave up on ever building the SSC anywhere, no international effort would be mounted in this country, tens of thousands of the top nuclear engineers and scientists would not be coming to work, live, and innovate in this country, and the United States would not be leading research in the field of nuclear physics.
Shortly thereafter, in 1994, construction started on the large hadron collider at its present location under international auspices, basically funded by contributions from several countries (the United States included). So while the intellect of man has been validated by this spectacular success, the intellect of Congress and of our political leadership has been spectacularly lacking.
Vance K. Opperman
Hoping for a
Fully Powered LHC
*To view one physicist's take on how the large hadron collider works and what it might tell us about the material the universe is made of, click here.