Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Looking for the 'God's Particle'

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be active within less than a day from now. The billion dollar experiment has already gained a lot of publicity even before it starts! And, it would be longer still before any scientifically significant outcome comes out of the 27 kilometer magnetic conduit. The largest magnet i've laid my hands on (around 10 years ago) was the one my grandpa used for 'magnet therapy'. Its magnetic force was impressively strong and it weighed around 2kg. The power of a supercooled ~20 tonne magnet is simply beyond my imagination!
But, why are they(scientists) doing all this ? Curiosity, i believe. Its man's insatiable hunger for knowledge!
Scientists are madly in search of the missing piece of the standard model of particle physics - the Higgs Boson also known the 'God's particle. From what little i know about particle physics, what i understand is - scientists are searching for a field which gives fundamental particles(quarks and leptons mainly) their mass. When massless particles move in this field, they 'aquire' mass. Since, it is proven that nature exhibits wave-particle duality at the quantum mechanical level, the particle associated with this wave (field) is being sought rather than the field. Peter Higgs had proposed the existence of this particle/field long ago and so its called the Higgs boson/field. The Higgs boson corroborates the accepted Standard Model, but it has never been experimentally observed.
Higgs bosons decay too quickly to be observed. Scientists say that, the HB existed just after the big bang, and so they are trying to create similar high energy states artificially, by colliding protons(a kind of hadron) into protons travelling at near light velocities. A stupendous amount of data would be generated from the collisions inside the LHC. Scientists will have to analyse all those hadron collisons and, try to detect whether any unknown particle was emitted as a by-product. It must be like finding a needle in a needlestack! A special kind of high data rate network has been designed to handle and process the data generated by the collider. If not anything about physics, even a robust protocol to handle distributed data processing would be a significant outcome of the LHC ;) That is to expect the least.
If the LHC proves that there is no HB then, even that would be a very important discovery. Then we would require some major changes to the standard model or may be, look for something totally different.

What if we do manage to find the God's particle ? and someday complete the unification of all 4 forces ? How would it benefit the common man ? What are the practical returns we would get from it ? and when ? No direct returns probably, and certainly not quickly. Wouldn't it be better to put on hold such expenses and, use all that money to do something else which is urgent ? We had a nice discussion about these things in office at lunch today. My colleagues said that, all that money could have been well spent on cancer research or global warming or for fighting AIDS in third world nations. I agree with them...somewhat. Those problems at hand are much more important than going after quarks and neutrinos. But, man is a curious animal and, knowledge(to some extent) is probably a need rather than a luxury. Also, research in fundamental sciences might not give quick returns like research in technology but, it certainly helps in the long term. In the long term, technology makers benefit from such research and the benefits are ultimately passed on to common people.
Of course, only developed nations should pour their money into such research. IMO, countries like India should consider particle accelerators to be the last thing to invest in. Roads and electricity would two better things to start with...

LHC rap! Its pretty informative BTW.

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