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Why mass matters: the Higgs boson and particle physics

Alice Livingstone Boomla explains why we should care about the discovery of the Higgs boson

Issue No. 2311

A simulation of Higgs boson decay

A simulation of Higgs boson decay


Scientists have discovered a new particle—which seems likely to be the elusive Higgs boson. They have spent six decades trying to confirm what is called the Standard Model of particle physics. The Higgs boson is the last remaining piece in the jigsaw of particles predicted by the theory.

It has unhelpfully become known as the God Particle. The hype around it fits into the ideology of a quest for a Theory of Everything—an idea that carries almost theological significance for some physicists.

But it’s possible the discovery may not neatly confirm the theory, but expose its contradictions and point towards new theories.

The theory predicted the existence of a large number of sub-atomic particles, only a few of which can be observed in normal matter. Finding the others meant creating a “particle soup” through high-energy collisions in gigantic particle accelerators.

Since 2000 it only remained to discover the Higgs boson, the particle which gives all matter its mass. This was a mammoth task, because the Higgs boson was predicted to decay too quickly to be observed directly. But we can see the particles it decays into.

Scientists compared the particles they expected to see if the Higgs boson had been present with those they’d expect if it didn’t exist.

They have discovered a new particle. And this new particle corresponds very closely to the predictions for the Higgs boson. But it also appears to have some properties that don’t quite match.

The discovery points towards new theories and new hunts to embark on. For example the theory of “supersymmetry” suggests that we may have found just one of five different Higgs bosons. That gives the Large Hadron Collider plenty to do before it shuts for a two year refit at the end of this year.

Revolutions

Science progresses through contradictions and revolutions. New evidence and new ideas are constantly exposing contradictions within the theories that are widely accepted.

These contradictions open the door to overturning the old theory with a new one that fits better—until the cycle is repeated and a new scientific revolution is needed to go beyond that theory in turn.

The Standard Model itself came out of an attempt to reconcile one of the fundamental contradictions in 20th century physics—between Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the strange new observations of quantum mechanics.

It is easy to fall into one of two traps. One is the narrow focus that scientists are often pressured to take in order to prove the practical value of their research for the purpose of funding. The other is the mysticism that saw even Stephen Hawking argue that with the right theory scientists could know “the mind of God”.

Frederick Engels argued that “Natural science developed in the midst of general revolution and was itself thoroughly revolutionary”. The scientific breakthroughs of giants like Galileo and Newton took place in the context of the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie against the old feudal order.

New social and productive forces raised new arguments. As Engels put it, although “production owes to science... science owes infinitely more to production”.

Today we also see how capitalism can distort science and hold it back. Duplication of effort between competing scientists, and between states, diverts resources.

And to get funding in universities, scientists have to look to research with obvious profitable applications, or which fits in to the most fashionable theories.

So while we celebrate the new breakthroughs, we should also look forward to the scientific revolutions that would be possible in a society based on cooperation around human need.

Alice Livingstone Boomla was speaking at the Marxism 2012 festival


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Tue 10 Jul 2012, 18:01 BST
Issue No. 2311
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