Higgs Research Could Lead to Unimagined Discoveries

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-07-05

Higgs Boson Discovery: Why It's Important to All of Us

It€™s impossible to overstate the importance of the Higgs Boson, the discovery of which was announced at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire). Without this particle, you wouldn€™t exist. For that matter, the universe wouldn€™t exist. That€™s because the Higgs Boson creates a field that gives other particles mass, giving weight and shape to all the matter we see in the universe 

Or, to describe the indescribable, what the Higgs Boson does is create a field of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence, and while they€™re in existence those virtual particles provide mass to other particles that are able to interact with them. Photons, which are being created by the bazillion (to use the precise scientific term) by the monitor in front of you, are the particle manifestation of the electro-magnetic field we call €œlight.€ Photons are very real and depending on how they€™re observed can appear as either particles or waves. 

Photons have little mass, so little in fact that it takes something as massive as a star (or a former star in the form of a black hole) to affect them. In the rest of the universe, the photon can be considered massless. Another particle with which you€™re familiar is the electron, which does have mass, although not a lot. 

I mention the electron, because it illustrates why you may want to pay attention to the Higgs Boson. The electron was discovered in 1897, but while it was understood to play a role in electricity and in electrical transmission, the use of the electron itself didn€™t really happen until the development of electronics. And some of the electron€™s more interesting capabilities weren€™t understood until much more recently. 

For example, a major cause of power loss in electronic devices is due to a characteristic called electron tunneling. Because an observer can€™t know precisely where an electron is physically located, its position is a statistical probability. But the electron doesn€™t care where it probably is. The electron can be anywhere in a range of 1 to 3 nanometers. This means it can pass through a barrier or it can appear on an adjacent wire in an integrated circuit. 

But engineers can make use of this characteristic to create devices such as tunnel diodes. These are devices that have a number of useful characteristics, but the bottom line is that they are widely used in frequency converters and detectors.

Higgs Research Could Lead to Unimagined Discoveries

You wouldn€™t have a cell phone or an iPad without the electron€™s tunneling effect. This basic aspect of quantum physics has real-world applications that are both negative (it affects the minimum size of integrated circuits and their power loss characteristics) and positive uses in electronics. 

At this point, nobody knows what the likely applications might be for the Higgs Boson. In fact, right now nobody knows for sure what its exact characteristics are or even whether there is only one type of Higgs Boson, or perhaps multiple types. The scientists at CERN and elsewhere still have a lot more data to sift through, and a lot more testing to be accomplished.  

But the good news for scientists, and eventually for you, is that the existence of this particle has been proven, that it€™s almost certainly the Higgs Boson and that means the Standard Model of quantum mechanics is correct. This in turn means that resources can be focused on this part of quantum mechanics. Eventually those resources can be used to describe the Higgs Boson more exactly and to determine how it manages to impart mass on other particles and what it is about other particles that makes them more or less affected by the Higgs field and the virtual particles that comprise it. 

But what will it mean for you? Well, right now nobody knows, just as nobody knew until recently what the quantum effects of the electron could do for you. As it turned out, not only are we able to take advantage of those quantum effects, but we understand the limits imposed on devices we build because of those quantum effects. And while the existence of electrical resistance has been known since electricity started being used, who would have suspected the existence of negative resistance in tunneling devices? 

Does this mean that we could see the emergence of effects of things such as negative mass and thus anti-gravity, as an outgrowth of the Higgs Boson discovery? Probably not, since the description of mass doesn€™t seem to allow for negative numbers. But that only means that we don€™t understand mass as thoroughly as we need to. Perhaps the discovery of the Higgs Boson will help us with that understanding. Ultimately, it€™s the growth in understanding that€™s critical to the applications that may come from this discovery. 

One other note €“ if the reference to CERN seems strangely familiar to you, that capable laboratory was responsible for a development that affects your life every day. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN and that€™s the site for the first ever Web server. 

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