Understanding Higgs-Boson

Finding anything named after the Deity ought to be easy… very easy… a lead pipe cinch, you say to yourself. After all, its namesake is rumored to be… well… EVERYWHERE. You figure globs of the stuff to be dripping from the branches of trees, oozing from swamplands, being swept from concrete carport floors and dusted from the tops of wing-tipped shoes, like pollen during the high season. The Bohemian side of your nature – and everyone has at least a little – hints you might even find… some of ’em frolicking, like hippies, in a nearby meadow,“nekid” as jaybirds and “up to sumthin’.” It will be easy, you again say to yourself.

The back-story for public consumption is “the God Particle” got its name because it is the cosmological linchpin that holds everything together – i e. on which the existence of everything in the universe depends. Literally. Without the God Particle, nothing exists – at least in the theory of Physics. Looking back however, you suspect the real reason is that the guy who came up with the monicker had an inkling of the eventual resource requirements to one day find the little iota: 45 years, billions of dollars, a 17-mile long tunnel dug 600 feet beneath the Earth’s surface and the cooperation of twelve European countries. The last one is the kicker – and is perhaps the most sublime of notions. Getting any two European countries–let alone twelve– to agree on anything without war breaking out is likely… well… an “Act of God”! Of course, many times during the quest you’ve reminded yourself this whole thing wouldn’t be so damned difficult if the little bugger wasn’t so small and if it didn’t move so fast… at the speed of light… for god-sakes!

The God Particle (not actual size)
The God Particle (not actual size)

The God Particle, formally named the Higgs-Boson is an invisible sub-atomic speck, part of an atom’s nucleus. Until lately, no one, not Dr. Oz, not Martha Stewart, not even Oprah – had ever seen one. In fact no one had ever smelled, tasted, touched, or even heard one rummaging around the kitchen after lights out, scavenging for a midnight snack.

On July 4, this year, scientists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) a consortium of twelve European countries operating out of Switzerland,  hit the jackpot. They found – live – the God Particle, the Holy Grail of the sub-atomic world sought by physicists and other people with high SAT scores for nearly as long as they’ve been trying to find Amelia Earhart. The thing shows up, naturally in the last place they looked, the Large Hadron Collider, something that sounds like it ought to be a bumper car ride at Six Flags but is instead an atom smasher.

At first blush, an atom smasher sounds like bad science fiction, something part of the plot of a bad 1950’s Saturday morning kids show say, Captain Midnight . Or maybe it could be part of Dr. Brown’s cache of futuristic tools in Back to the Future. In reality though, fifty stories below the border of France and Switzerland, the CERN atom smasher is the focus of serious-as-heart-attack science. It’s job is to accelerate the parts of an atoms to ungodly like speeds, crash them into one another and report what happens back to headquarters. And while the scientists driving the smasher don’t necessarily wear helmets, the results are not always predictable. A few years back, before they turned the keys for the smasher’s inaugural ride, there were serious scientists who were afraid of Apocalyptic results once  all those atoms started smashing together. Even today there is serious talk that the cyclotron, the smasher’s other name, could theoretically be used to send the God particle back a few nanosecond in time.  Maybe it’s a time machine too. Maybe not…we’ll just have to wait and see. But there  is little doubt that the CERN atom smasher has a serious agenda.


By now, most of us figured that mass – i.e. weight or ‘how heavy something is’ was caused by high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats or sugary soft drinks served in the 36 ounce size. And while all of the above are as successful conduits for the accumulation of mass as you ever thought that were, the real Origin of Mass is the Higgs-Boson (nee the God Particle) whose existence was first theorized by Scottish physicist, Peter Higgs in 1964.

Baby Back Ribs
Not Possible without Higgs-Boson

To understand how the Higgs-Boson works if you don’t have your operator’s manual handy, simply liken the activity at the nucleus of the atom to the happenings at a cocktail party. All through out the evening there are some people who attend the party briefly. These folks blow through on their way somewhere else entirely, perhaps another party. The passers-through don’t stick around for very long at all and probably only came to be polite to the host. On the other hand there are other guests at the party, say one of those leggy supermodel types, like say, Kate Upton, who attract a crowd and stay the whole time. Maybe the crowd of guys around of guys around Ms. Upton is there only to ogle. Nevertheless, Kate and the crowd hanging around her is “mass.” Without mass nothing in the universe would exist – not the stars, not the planets, not the reader, not the author, not even baby back bar-be-que ribs.

In addition to finally giving science – and the rest of us– an understanding of where mass comes from, the actual discovery of God Particle confirms our understanding of the universe. What’s more the Higgs-Boson may unlock a treasure trove of information about the existence of other universes, dark matter, dark energy plus even darker stuff too damn scary to mention.

As with most big mysteries, searches and ultimate triumphs, there is underlying plot and subtext. If you’d eavesdropped at CERN on July 4th, immediately after you heard “Jackpot!” in  twelve different languages, you might have heard:

“Whew!” (pronounced ‘Whew” in any language). Jiminy Christmas, that was a close one, Max. I was beginning to have my doubts about this whole damn thing myself.”

“Yeah, Pierre. I know what you mean. People were beginning to talk… specially the chemists over in Geneva. The mathematicians too. But this will prove to all of ’em we knew what we were talking about all along.”

Upon further investigation, we learn complete transparency was lacking when scientists previously tried to fully explain the workings of the universe. There was fine print at the bottom of the page of the Standard Model of Particle Physics –i.e. physics at the sub-atomic level. A reading of the fine print reveals that while we intrinsically knew that mass existed and that everything has some of it, yet, we still had not proved exactly where mass came from – i.e. what coaxed it into existence. Peter Higgs then theorizes the Higgs-Boson as the sub-atomic origin of mass. The problem though is that scientists could never prove the thing existed. So between ’64 and a few weeks ago, the Higgs-Boson largely remained high concept even though scientists were certain –reasonably so anyway –that the darn thing existed. We just knew and accepted that mass, say as represented by the kitchen refrigerator, could be one hard mother to move, even if you had three big, burly guys helping out.

Because of all of its potential, many scientists rank the discovery at CERN with the greatest [discoveries] of all time along with penicillin, SEC football, and men’s perma-press pants. Others rank the discovery less so, but it’s still big stuff.

Very likely it is Nobel Prize winning stuff as it is a near certainty Higgs and other folks at CERN will take center-stage at Nobel Headquarters in Oslo, Norway as early as next January. In addition, Higgs is potentially the CERN Employee of the Month, depending upon how many votes Mandy, the CERN cafeteria cashier garners. He will get a certificate suitable for framing and as well as his own parking space near ‘the smasher’ for the next 30 days. Higgs also becomes the hero of small children of every generation, who just knew, despite parents pleas to the contrary that smashing stuff together during playtime was not only educational but also a future career option.

As for ‘the particle itself, it is already the star of its own upcoming PBS Special to be hustled during Pledge Week along with the 317th ‘Doo Wop’ Reunion Song Collection. (“At the $150 membership level, we will include this wonderful CD, a one night only performance ‘An Evening with Peter Higgs and the Atom Smashers Live from The Hadron’”)


One wonders how the staff at CERN celebrated their big find? There seems to be no specific protocol for the real time celebration of the great discoveries of mankind. Legend has it Christopher Columbus didn’t have time to celebrate finding the New World as he was, at that very moment, being shot at by what he thought were Indians. Copernicus, who discovered that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than vice versa, celebrated by being persecuted by the Church for heresy.

My Bohemian side imagines that maybe the CERN folks went to a nearby meadow, shed their clothes and frolicked in a manner that would give any onlookers the impression that they were… well, ‘up to sumthin’.

In reality, the writer expects that the folks  at CERN actually celebrated quietly. Three of the scientists instrumental in the discovery, Pierre, Hans and Max, enjoyed individual glasses of milk while seated around a small white Formica top  table in the CERN employee cafeteria. After a brief toast, they each wiped off their milk mustaches and walked toward the elevator that would take them the six-hundred feet or so feet to the Earth’s surface.

While being hoisted to “the Top” , they looked forlornly at each other and said in unison “Well, what do we do now?”

Super High Speed Stop Action Photo of the of the Hadron Collider Atom Smasher
Super High Speed Stop Action Photo of the of the Hadron Collider Atom Smasher (Stefan)

“Well, I’ve got access to the smasher for the next three hours. The wife and I went over the border to France last night and bought a bunch of grapes. I’m going to run out to the car, get ’em, throw them in the smasher. I don’t know what will happen exactly, but I’m looking forward to drinking the world’s first Atom Smashed Malt Liquor wine,” said Pierre, the French scientist.

“Save some for me, Pierre,” said Max, on loan to CERN from Germany.

“Well, now that we’ve found the God Particle, I’ve got to immediately start working on finding dark matter and dark energy,” said Hans, the Ph.D, from Stockholm.

“Sounds kind of scary. I’d be careful if I were you,” said Max.

“Oh, I will. But now that we’ve found the God particle, I expect dark matter to be easy to find… very easy indeed… a lead pipe cinch. You know there’s ‘dark’ EVERYWHERE… twelve hours a day, everyday. Trust me, it’ll be easy.”

“Yeah, right. That’s what you said forty five years ago. Remember?”, said Pierre.

“Exactly,” taunted Max. “Then look what happened.”

Ignoring the other two, Hans looked down at the tops of his winged-tipped shoes. Covering them was a strange dusty substance that he had not seen before the discovery. Now it seemed to cover almost everything in sight. He’d have to speak to the CERN maintenance people about the stuff. Dust could very well jam the smasher’s gears. Then Hans knelt down and picked a glob of the dust off of his wing-tipped shoes. With a twinkle in his eye, he wondered to himself what would happen – what he might find – if he threw some of the stuff into the smasher when no one else was looking…

Will Cantrell

Will Cantrell

Will Cantrell (a pseudonym) is a writer, storyteller, and explorer of the milieu of everyday life. An aging Baby Boomer, a Georgia Tech grad, and a retired banker, Cantrell regularly chronicles what he swears are 'mostly true'  'everyman' adventures. Of late, he's written about haircuts, computer viruses, Polar Vortexes, identity theft, ketchup, doppelgangers, bifocals, ‘Streetification’, cursive handwriting, planning his own funeral and other gnarly things that caused him to scratch his head in an increasingly more and more crazy-ass world.   As for Will himself, the legend is at an early age he wandered South, got lost, and like most other self-respecting males, was loathe to ask for directions. The best solution, young Will mused, “was just to stay put”. All these years later, he still hasn't found his way but remains  a son of the New South. He was recently sighted somewhere close to I-285, lost, bumfuzzled and mumbling something about “...writing' his way home.” Of course, there are a lot of folks who think that “Cantrell ain't wrapped too tight” but hope that he keeps writing about his adventures as he finds his way back to the main highway.