The Higgs and the Higgs

Author: Javier Sánchez Cañizares. group de research Ciencia, Razón y Fe (CRYF), University of Navarra
Published in: Revista Palabra, p. 6.
Date of publication: August-September 2012

On 4 July, CERN researchers announced the discovery of the Higgs boson finding , one of the most sought-after pieces in the puzzle of contemporary particle physics. Although the results have yet to be confirmed, the level of confidence in the experiments seems to dispel all suspicions. Yes, the Higgs boson has indeed been there.

The existence of this particle is a prediction of a theoretical model , devised in the 1960s by Peter Higgs and other scientists to explain how the mass of the fundamental particles of the universe appears. All the subject we know is made up of quarks (constituents of the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei) and leptons (electrons, muons, taus and neutrinos), which interact with each other according to the four fundamental forces of nature (gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear). Now, the fundamental particles are "point-like" (as far as we know they are indivisible) and each of them has a given mass. One of the problems is to explain how this mass arises and why it has a precise value in each case. The Higgs model does this and the finding of the boson would be the test that the theory is correct.

Why did it take so long for this particle to be discovered? For those unfamiliar with physics, it should be said that these particles are not visible under a microscope. The existence of the Higgs lasts for a very short time (less than a quadrillionth of a second) and you can tell that it has appeared by the final particles into which it eventually transforms. In this case, there were two additional problems: firstly, it was not known exactly how much energy was needed to produce the boson; secondly, the particles into which it eventually decays are common to many other types of collisions at CERN. It is therefore virtually impossible to discern whether the Higgs has appeared from a single experiment. It has been necessary to carry out collisions between particle beams for a long time and a serious statistical treatment of the results in order to be able to say (with a Degree of certainty acceptable to science) that the boson has appeared, in the expected range of energies.

The naming of the Higgs as the God particle is due to Nobel laureate Leon Lederman at award and there is nothing mysterious about it. In the degree scroll of a book published in 1993, he wanted to refer to the boson as "the goddamn particle" - because of the war it was waging - but his publisher suggested that he simply call it "the God particle". The Higgs particle is no more or less divine than any other particle. His finding is an endorsement of the standard particle model , but there are still many unanswered fundamental questions: why are quarks and leptons grouped into three distinct families? Is gravity quantizable and can it be unified with the other forces? What are subject and dark energy made of?

The finding of the Higgs particle is a major breakthrough in our understanding of the universe. However, it is by no means the end of the road for fundamental physics. We do not yet know how many more surprises await us as we scrutinise nature. Nevertheless, it is worth emphasising something that should not go unnoticed in the context of this happy finding: the ability of human beings to know a world that "is intelligently structured, so that there is a profound correspondence between our subjective reason and the objective reason of nature. It is therefore inevitable to ask whether there should not be a single original intelligence, which is the common source of one and the other" (Benedict XVI, speech at the IV Italian National Assembly, 19 October 2006).

The boson's finding has been a long time coming, but it has finally appeared and gives us confidence in the validity of the standard model and the Higgs theory. And also, why not say it, in the ability of human intelligence to reach the truth.