Monday, 30 July 2012

It’s the Atheist Particle, actually

Human Angle
Babu Gogineni
In 1977, the distinguished physicist Leon Lederman and his colleagues at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the US believed that they were on the verge of discovering a new elementary particle. An elementary particle is a fundamental building block of the universe and Lederman and his team predicted that this sub-atomic particle would have a mass of about 6.0 GeV or Giga Electron Volts, the units of mass used in particle physics. They even decided to call it the Upsilon Particle, after the Greek Letter Upsilon (Υ) – but realisation came that this was a wrong call, and the non-existing particle was promptly renamed ‘Oops-Leon!’
Leon Lederman is a Nobel Laureate and an important participant in the global race to discover elementary particles: It was a race that began after Sir J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897, thus showing that John Dalton’s 1803 theory that the atom was the basic unit of matter was wrong. Since then there have been a string of discoveries of sub-atomic particles, some composite and some elementary. Many of these were first predicted by theory and when the evidence was produced, the validity of the theory was confirmed.
Based on the work of thousands of theoretical and experimental scientists, modern science has developed an idea of the universe: the universe is made up of 4% atoms and 20% dark matter & 76% dark energy that we cannot observe. There are four fundamental forces in the universe: the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity. The universe started with a big bang some 14 billion years ago when all these forces were unleashed. The universe continues to expand.
Babu Gogineni
The observable universe is made of 18 fundamental particles: 6 kinds of quarks, 6 kinds of leptons and 6 kinds of force carriers. These 18 different particles fit into two categories: bosons, named after Satyendranath Bose, which have a full integer spin and transmit force (photons and gluons) and fermions, named after Enrico Fermi, which have an integer spin and make up matter (electrons, protons and quarks).
This standard model explains many phenomena but there are many riddles too. How are the four fundamental forces to be brought together in one single theory which can explain everything? What is dark matter exactly? What happened at the time of the big bang? When the big bang happened why did some of the particles acquire mass while others did not?
In there were nothing that enabled mass, all the elementary particles would keep travelling at the speed of light and would not come together and there would be no atoms, elements, planets or solar systems. In 1964, François Englert and Robert Brout from Belgium and Peter Higgs from Scotland proposed that a boson which endowed mass to other particles would be the answer. This boson soon came to be called the Higgs boson and is the most fundamental particle that could explain the universe to us.
At least six Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work related to the Higgs boson so far, but Peter Higgs and his fellow theorists did not themselves get it! That is set to change now that the Higgs Boson has been detected after two years of observation as protons collided 40 million times a second for two years in the giant 27 km-long Large Hadron Collider at the Centre Européen de Recherce Nucléaire (CERN) in Geneva. In an astonishing achievement, scientists at CERN recreated the early conditions of the big bang and have 99.9% certainty that the particle exists!
Nearly twenty years ago, when the Higgs Boson was still an elusive particle, Leon Lederman wrote that it was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” He even called it the ‘God-damned particle’ because it was not to be found! Disastrously, he then had his second ‘Oops-Leon!’ moment when he allowed his publisher to call it the God Particle in the title for his 1993 best seller on the global search for the boson.
Leon Lederman is himself an atheist and he regrets the term, and Peter Higgs who is an atheist too, has expressed his displeasure, but the damage has been done! The God particle is today the most popular name for the Higgs boson. If anything, the discovery of the Higgs boson and the confirmation of the Standard Model of the Universe make God even more unnecessary to explain the universe. In the universe are inscribed laws by which the big bang was initiated and the functioning of the universe sustained. Since we have the Higgs boson we do not need God anymore! If ever there was a Godless or an atheist particle, it is the Higgs boson!
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