"Say Cheese"

“Say Cheese”

The Nobel Prize is always awarded for a body of work which is transformative and of great significance, but this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to one of the numerous theoretical physicists responsible for the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, is perhaps the greatest breakthrough in physics since Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The picture above is an equation first written in the 1950’s.  While it seems long and complex to a layman, the equation is described by physicists as simple.  Known as the ‘Standard Model’, this equation explains every physical relationship in the universe from how molecules make up our skin to why stars are made of gas to how the earth has water, with one very large exception.  It cannot explain gravity.

All of the variables in this equation have subscripts referencing one of 16 elementary particles.  Elementary particles are so small they make up subatomic particles like neutrons and protons which make up atoms.

Every variable in this lengthy equation references an elementary particle except for one- H.  You can plug this equation into a computer and calculate anything in physics so long as you overlook H.  For the last 60 years, physicists have gone about their daily work quietly knowing that the equation works beautifully if you just overlook the fact that H has no proof of existence.  It is essentially a ‘fudge factor’, but one which is consistent.  It would be like buying a packet of spice to make ham and bean soup.  You know there is salt and ham flavor and you know the soup turns out perfectly every time you make it, but there is an ingredient that makes it delicious, you know its there, you just don’t know what it is.

The brilliance of writing this equation at a time when calculators didn’t even exist is amazing.  The story was then put on hold until recently.

The way the Higgs-Boson particle was proven is through the use of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.  This facility is the largest and most expensive science experiment to ever be built.  The circumference of the collider is 17 miles.  Physicists take two Hydrogen nuclei (protons) and accelerate them at 99.9999 percent the speed of light in opposite directions around the collider.  They traverse the 17 mile circumference at 11,000 times per second!  Then the two particles are directed toward one another and they collide.  When this happens, it replicates one billionth of a second after the origin of the universe.  Scientists then use a digital camera and take a picture and to their delight, the image in the photo is H.  The digital image captures the Higgs-Boson particle.

Essentially, one billionth of a second after the universe began, gravity separated out from the rest of all the other particles that went on to become the universe and lagged behind.  Fortunately, the combined brilliance of numerous physicists and engineers were able to finally prove this and their collective effort won them the Nobel Prize.