There was a time when it was thought that the smallest particle of matter was an atom. Uncuttable, as named by the Greeks, this particle was the basic building block of all matter. Everything is made up of atoms, the air we breathe, the water we drink, our very own bodies are made up of it. Fast forward to 1897 and physicist J. J. Thomson made a startling discovery through his work on cathode rays: he discovers subatomic particles. This effectively destroys the concept of atoms as being indivisible units and being the fundamental particles.
Everything changed from that moment. From that instance of peering into the depths of microcosm, we saw a whole new world – a universe, if you will – come to light. We saw that atoms are made of particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons; protons and neutrons are made of weird particles called quarks and gluons. Further particles were also discovered, thus the Standard Model was made and hence, Particle Physics was born.
This peeling away of the layers of the smallest particles known to man has given insight into far greater things: like the creation of the universe. How can something so small and tiny give us insight about something as massive and colossal as the very creation of the universe, that is, The Big Bang?
That is where the hunt for the most elusive particle comes into play. Scientists across the world have been hunting the particle which is theoretically responsible for the creation of the universe. It existed for the briefest of seconds when there wasn't even a concept of seconds just moments after the Big Bang (approximately one billionth of a second). It is the only particle in the Standard Model to still be theoretical and hidden from the prying eyes of humanity. Its scientific name is the Higgs boson, named so after Peter Higgs who has theorized its existence. But physicist Leon Lederman gave it another name, he called it: The God Particle.
The funny thing is, Lederman originally wanted to call it the Goddamn Particle (his publisher censored the term and renamed it) and Higgs was against the idea of attaching religion to his theory. But what is this God Particle exactly? Let's start first with the complicated definition and work our way towards the simpler one.
The Higgs boson is a particle, much like protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks and gluons and so on and so forth, but it is a highly unstable particle. It is part of a field, also theorized by Peter Higgs, called the Higgs field. This field pervades all space and the Higgs boson the carrier of it, interacting with other particles (just like the fictitious Jedi Knights from Star Wars interact with the Force). The Higgs boson is an important aspect of the Standard Model of Particle Physics—but no one's ever found it.
Theoretical physicist John Ellis is one of the scientists searching for the Higgs. Ellis explains that the Higgs field, in theory, is what gives fundamental particles mass. He offers an analogy: Different fundamental particles, he says, are like a crowd of people running through mud. Some particles, like quarks, have big boots that get covered with lots of mud; others, like electrons, have little shoes that barely gather any mud at all. Photons don't wear shoes—they just glide over the top of the mud without picking any up. And the Higgs field is the mud.
Ellis isn't the only one looking for the particle. Over 8,000 "detective" scientists from over 85 countries are polishing their magnifying glasses. On September 10th of this year, the proverbial magnifying glass of the detective scientists (nearly 27 miles long and located on the French-Swiss border) was switched on. Housed in CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. It pushes particles, like protons, up to speeds of light and creates collisions between them.
The resulting debris from these collisions will confirm whether the Higgs boson exists or not. The particle itself is impossible to see, as it exists for the briefest of moments, but the decay rate and the remnants of the particle can be detected. This detection could confirm the predictions and missing links in the Standard Model, and could explain how particles (atoms, electrons, et al) acquire mass.
The LHC has six massive detectors all lined up across the giant ring and each detector has been given a specific task. The main tasks of the four are as follows:
ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) – The first of two general purpose detectors, its job is to look for clues of extra dimensions, the origins of mass, and signs of new physics. It will also hunt for the Higgs boson.
CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) – The second general purpose detector will, like ATLAS, will be after the Higgs boson and look for clues into the nature of dark matter.
ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) – This detector look for clues of quark-gluon plasma, a liquid form of matter that existed shortly after the Big Bang.
LHCb – Shortly after the Big Bang, it is theorized that equal amounts of matter and anti-matter were created in the Big Bang. This detector will look for clues and investigate what happened to the missing anti-matter.
The final two detectors, TOTEM and LHCf are smaller in scale and deal with specialized research.
So these are the 'unusual' suspects and the detectives, and now their games of hide and seek begins. And some say that this is quite the dangerous game. Already people have been theorizing that the LHC will create havoc and put the existence of the world in jeopardy. To put the fears of the world aside, the LHC has formed a group called the LSAG (LHC Safety Assessment Group) to address the safety issues of the upcoming experiments.
Regarding the accidental discover or making of black holes, the LSAG website states, "Speculations about microscopic black holes at the LHC refer to particles produced in the collisions of pairs of protons, each of which has an energy comparable to that of a mosquito in flight. Astronomical black holes are much heavier than anything that could be produced at the LHC. According to the well-established properties of gravity, described by Einstein’s relativity, it is impossible for microscopic black holes to be produced at the LHC."
And with regards to cosmic rays, "over the past billions of years, Nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments – and the planet still exists."
There is also no need to catch your breath. Although the LHC has come online, it will take about two months for it to get ready for the first proper experiment. And there are many questions that it can answer.
But some continue to speculate that we will learn absolutely nothing at all, and even that could be a good thing. In fact, Stephen Hawking, the world renowned mathematician and theoretical physicist, in a BBC interview said "I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again. I have a bet of one hundred dollars that we won't find the Higgs." In the same interview Hawking mentions the possibility of finding super partners and adds that "whatever the LHC finds, or fails to find, the results will tell us a lot about the structure of the universe."
His statement permeates the entire scientific community which awaits any kind of results: Good or bad, find or no find. If the Higgs is found, it will prove a 40-year-old theory correct and the world will peer into the depths of its own creation. If there is no Higgs particle, it will prove that we have much to learn about the universe and that there is something even more fascinating than the God Particle that we do not know about.