Econintersect: Yesterday we had an extensive review of the Higgs boson detection announced by the team at the CERN LHC (Large Hadron Collider) near Geneva. One item that review missed was an important discussion written by Elizabeth Kolbert at The New Yorker. Kolbert says that the “discovery” and the associated announcement are actually very disappointing in that there was really nothing at all unexpected or surprising about it. It was a sort of “’we told you we were right, and now we can say that we have been right.” How boring.
Picture: Albert Einstein in 1921, age 42.
How Important is the Higgs Boson?
It turns out that the Standard Model, the validation of which depends on the Higgs boson being real, is not quite the template for the Unified Field Theory. The search for this theory consumed the life of Albert Einstein and he was no closer to that achievement when he died than he was when he formulated E = mC2 more than 50 years earlier.
Kobert wrote this:
Indisputably, the discovery of the Higgs is an extraordinary accomplishment, a testament to the strength of modern physics both as a theoretical and as a practical enterprise. But here’s also where the note of disappointment creeps in.
The Standard Model has several holes in it, which have only become more troubling the more that’s been learned. To account for these gaps, all sorts of “new physics” have been proposed, complete with new dimensions, new particles (or “sparticles”), and mini black holes. Many, perhaps most, high-energy physicists were hoping that the Large Hadron Collider would provide evidence in support of one (or more) of these new theories. If the Higgs turns out to be just what it looks like—the particle predicted by the Standard Model—then it will leave unresolved all of the questions that trouble the model. In an interview with the BBC, Stephen Hawking described the discovery of the Higgs as Nobel Prize-worthy, but also, “a pity in a way, because the great advances in physics have come from experiments that gave results we didn’t expect.” Adam Mann described the problem this way recently on Wired.com: “The Higgs boson is starting to look just a little too ordinary.”
In an e-mail to the Times, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the C.M.S. team, said that she was still hoping to be surprised by the Higgs: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything,” she wrote. “I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”
So, if the Higgs boson really is the Higgs boson, it solidifies the standing of the Standard Model. But that may be a disservice to the advancement of science because the Standard Model still has significant shortcomings compared to what is the holy grail of physics: The Unified Field Theory” which is more popularly named the “Theory of Everything.”
The Standard Model is a mathematical representation of reality which has never been solved in a closed form, merely extended to further and further numerical estimations. Perhaps it would have been a bigger breakthrough for modern physics to have characterized the observations announced this week as discovery of something that had mass endowing properties (like the Higgs boson) but had properties inconsistent with the Higgs formulation. Then the particle physics world would have been put in the position wished for by Prof. Maria Spiropulu: starting over.
How Big is the Higgs Boson?
If “big” means “heavy” then just how large is one Higgs Boson? It is being reported that it has a mass of 125.3 or 126 billion electron volts.
Huh? Electron volt is a measure of energy, so tell me again how heavy is it?
Time for Einstein to re-enter the discussion because his formulation of General Relativity established the equivalence of mass and energy. Energy is related to mass by E = mC2 (There you go again!) or energy is proportional to mass and the proportionality constant is the speed of light squared.
So some quick arithmetic can produce the relationship that 1 ev is the energy equivalent of 2.10 x 10-11 g. So when it comes to mass, the Higgs boson doesn’t sound so big either. That number is 0.00000000002 gram or approximately 0.00000000000067 ounce (Troy). If you had that much gold it would be worth about $0.00000000042. Or putting it differently, it would take about 3.8 trillion Higgs bosons to equal the mass of one ounce of gold.
An aside: Alex Knapp has estimated (Forbes) that the cost of finding this first Higgs boson is about $13.25 billion. That number makes the new particle worth about 8.3 million ounces of gold. Pretty expensive: one subatomic particle worth millions of ounces of gold.
Finally, to return to how big is the Higgs boson: that mass of 2.1 x 10-11 g is 12 trillion times the mass of a proton (hydrogen atom nucleus) and 530 quadrillion (5.3 x 1017) times the mass of an electron. So, on the scale of things that we are all used to in our chemistry and basic physics classes, the Higgs boson is the mother of all big particles. On a mass scale it dwarfs the mass of a gold atom by 61 billion times.
Thus the Higgs boson is not only big in importance, it is also big in mass. However, the world can only hope that it will cost a lot less than $13.25 billion to get the second Higgs boson. After all, we can only afford $67 million per amu (atomic mass unit) every once in a while.
- “I Think We Have It”: Is the Higgs Boson a Disappointment?” (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 05 July 2012)
- Which Boson Do You Work For? (GEI News, 05 July 2012)
- The Standard Model: In Trouble? (Jupiter Scientific.org)
- How Much Does It Cost to Find a Higgs Boson? (Alex Knapp, Forbes, 05 July 2012)
- How Much Gold is There in the World? (Coin Week, 13 January 2011)
- Gold: How Much Is There? (GEI News, 06 July 2012)