What the Higgs?

The other day I interviewed Emanuela Barberis of the physics department about her work with two other physics professors, Darien Wood and George Alverson, at CERN (the European Center for Particle Physics). We were chatting about muons and leptons and quarks, stuff I’m (definitely not) totally familiar with. I was basically getting my own personal particle physics lesson (a perk of the job).

Barberis and her Northeastern buddies, along with some post-docs, PhD students, and an ongoing influx of co-op students are using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern to find never-before-seen particles that could be signs of “new physics.”

What does that mean — new physics?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because I am just recently capable of answering that question. The Standard Model of Particle Physics was developed several decades ago but still has a few holes.

When Dmitri Mendeleev first published the periodic table of the elements in 1869, it also had holes. Mendeleev believed that many elements were out there, we just hadn’t found them yet — the periodic table wouldn’t work if he was wrong.

In a lecture the other day about mapping science, a physicist named Katy Börner told me (and the rest of the audience) that early maps of the planet were only partially filled in, with borders trailing off into oblivion because no one had yet observed the raw data (ie., set foot on that land).

The Standard Model is similar to these unfinished maps and early versions of the periodic table. A set of particles must exist in order for it to be correct. All these particles have been identified but one — the infamous Higgs boson.

The Northeastern team works alongside thousands of other scientists at CERN as they search for new particles. If someone finds the Higgs, that would validate once and for all the Standard Model. If they find other new particles it could mean that the Standard Model is totally bogus and some other theory will have to explain our universe.

Ya know, no big deal.

Photo: Flikr, “flikr2776” September 6, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Video: Flikr, “flikr2776a” September 7, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.