Crash course in particulate physics

Since 4th July I have been asked countless times about the search for the Higgs boson. What is the Higgs? Is it the Higgs? Why have we spent €7.5 billion on this quest? Having no idea that there was more to physics than graduated cylinders, regretfully I didn’t study it beyond the Junior Cert. It was time for a crash course and no better place than ESOF! This pursuit led me on an exploration of not only our universe but also my place in it. Here’s what I discovered with the help of Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Niamh Shaw/Úna Kavanagh.

In the last few weeks Director General of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, has become a familiar face in most households as the news from this European laboratory was broadcast across the world. At ESOF, he was in high demand from the press and the public. Experiments at CERN have sparked a great enthusiasm for physics so it didn’t surprise me when the auditorium was filled with eager listeners for Heuer’s keynote speech.

500 Trillion Collisons

At ESOF: Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN / Image: Maxwell’s Dublin

Heuer talked about the 27 kilometre long Large Hadron Collider (pictured above) located beneath the French-Swiss border. “It’s one of the coldest places in the universe” (−271.25 °C) due to super-cooled Helium needed to keep it operating smoothly. “At the same time it’s one of the hottest places of the Galaxy” due to the collision of protons. The temperature as a result of this impact is higher than the centre of the sun.

So what of the elusive Higgs boson? The scale of the search was clear from Heuer’s analogy; “This is not looking for a needle in a haystack, this is looking for a needle in many haystacks with the slight problem that the haystack consists of needles”. The Higgs is the last piece of a jigsaw that scientists have been putting  together for quite some time. It needs to be found to prove that the Standard Model of particulate physics is the correct model for the sub-atomic universe. Piece-by-piece each of the other particles in this model were found until the Higgs stood to make or break this theory.

What is the Higgs? Check out this great video by PhD Comics:

CERN have now found a ‘Higgs-like particle’ with a probability of 5σ (sigma). This means the chance of it being random is smaller than one in one million. Repetition is key to get a probability like this and CERN had to repeat the proton collisions over 500 trillion times before their announcement earlier this month. To prove that this result is the Higgs, more data analysis needs to be done so that is why there was a very slight air of caution to the celebrations.

What If…?

So what does all this mean? My head was spinning with new particles and equations. I needed to make sense of it all! Later that evening, I walked into a dark room in the Project Arts Centre not knowing what to expect. ‘That’s About the Size of It‘ (by Niamh Shaw and Úna Kavanagh) began with Shaw trying to make sense of the world around us. Her in-depth understanding of physics was evident as she drew links between the Standard Model, the discovered particles, the Large Hadron Collider and finally the Higgs boson. With chalk and a circular mat, she explained the connections and they made sense!

That’s About the Size of It: Niamh Shaw / Image: Patrick Bolger

Dimensions and String Theory were next on the menu. This was a whole other level! A theory of everything; linking Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (think big e.g. black holes) and the Standard Model (think small e.g. electrons). Inspired by String Theory, Shaw took us on an emotional journey of her life as seen by oscillating strings in the 10th dimension. From this viewpoint, she could follow the outcome of every decision and chance event. The prospect of witnessing the result of life’s alternative paths is both daunting and enticing. I was blown away by Shaw’s truly honest self-exploration.

Leaving the show, I had plenty of food for thought. Having focused predominantly on topics of a biological nature, I have only recently began to comprehend the impact of physics. It can be used to explain many fundamental questions that I have been struggling with for years. If only I had known this when choosing my Leaving Cert subjects!

Large Hadron Collider, Credit: CERN
Image: CERN

Joining CERN: It was revealed at ESOF that it would cost Ireland just over one million euro to become an associate member of CERN. There is no question that this would be a valued investment! See letter in yesterday’s Irish Times from researchers in Trinity College Dublin, NUI Maynooth and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies that argues this case brilliantly: Irish Times Letters – 19 July 2012.