What the Higgs?

The other day I inter­viewed Emanuela Bar­beris of the physics depart­ment about her work with two other physics pro­fes­sors, Darien Wood and George Alverson, at CERN (the Euro­pean Center for Par­ticle Physics). We were chat­ting about muons and lep­tons and quarks, stuff I’m (def­i­nitely not) totally familiar with. I was basi­cally get­ting my own per­sonal par­ticle physics lesson (a perk of the job).

Bar­beris and her North­eastern bud­dies, along with some post-​​docs, PhD stu­dents, and an ongoing influx of co-​​op stu­dents are using the Large Hadron Col­lider (LHC) at Cern to find never-​​before-​​seen par­ti­cles that could be signs of “new physics.”

What does that mean — new physics?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because I am just recently capable of answering that ques­tion. The Stan­dard Model of Par­ticle Physics was devel­oped sev­eral decades ago but still has a few holes.

When Dmitri Mendeleev first pub­lished the peri­odic table of the ele­ments in 1869, it also had holes. Mendeleev believed that many ele­ments were out there, we just hadn’t found them yet — the peri­odic table wouldn’t work if he was wrong.

In a lec­ture the other day about map­ping sci­ence, a physi­cist named Katy Börner told me (and the rest of the audi­ence) that early maps of the planet were only par­tially filled in, with bor­ders trailing off into oblivion because no one had yet observed the raw data (ie., set foot on that land).

The Stan­dard Model is sim­ilar to these unfin­ished maps and early ver­sions of the peri­odic table. A set of par­ti­cles must exist in order for it to be cor­rect. All these par­ti­cles have been iden­ti­fied but one — the infa­mous Higgs boson.

The North­eastern team works along­side thou­sands of other sci­en­tists at CERN as they search for new par­ti­cles. If someone finds the Higgs, that would val­i­date once and for all the Stan­dard Model. If they find other new par­ti­cles it could mean that the Stan­dard Model is totally bogus and some other theory will have to explain our universe.

Ya know, no big deal.

Photo: Flikr, “flikr2776″ Sep­tember 6, 2008 via Flickr, Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution.

Video: Flikr, “flikr2776a” Sep­tember 7, 2008 via Flickr, Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution.