Star Talk: Higgs boson, ‘God Particle,’ celebrates its first birthday
Just about one year ago in the world’s greatest “atom-smashing” machine, a significant discovery in science occurred. After almost 50 years since an elementary piece of matter was first proposed to exist, and after decades of searching for the object, the elusive “God Particle” was found.
Known formally as the Higgs boson, it is not only important to scientists who research the scientific discipline of particle physics, but to astronomers as well. The “Higgs” is believed to be the first instance of matter that came into existence after the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.
Bosons are fundamental bits of matter that have their own unique set of properties. The Higgs boson was first theorized to exist in 1964 by a team of scientists that included Peter Higgs. Higgs went on to author a paper that detailed the properties of this particle and, hence, his name became associated with it.
Then last July 4, at the CERN linear accelerator — the world’s largest and most energetic “atom smasher” — along the Swiss-French border, scientists found evidence for the existence of the Higgs.
The Higgs boson, however, does not stay around very long. In only one ten billionth of a trillionth of a second the Higgs particle can decay into what are called the W and Z particles.
The W and Z were discovered in 1983 and these discoveries encouraged scientists to build larger facilities with greater colliding power to search for the Higgs. On March 14 of this year, further experiments tentatively confirmed the detection of the Higgs boson.
How is it that the Higgs has become known as “The God Particle”? In 1993, a book by that title was written by physicist Leon Lederman, then director of Fermilab — one of the world’s leading particle accelerator facilities — in Batavia, Ill. In his book, Lederman, a recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize in physics, described the Higgs boson and the science of particle physics.
The book was written soon after Congress failed to approve funding for the Superconducting Super Collider, an atom-smashing machine that would have been the top facility in the world and a cause championed by Lederman since its inception in 1983. His book also sought to further awareness of the importance and need for such a project.
When asked about the title of his book, Lederman replied that the Higgs boson is crucial to the understanding and structure of matter. Nevertheless, because the Higgs had persistently eluded scientists for decades, he wanted to title his book, “The Goddamn Particle.” Besides rejecting the title, his publisher felt that because of the link of the Higgs boson to the creation of matter, there was a connection “to another book, a much older one . . .” — the Book of Genesis.
The significance of finding the Higgs, which has been billed as “the particle that was born on the Fourth of July,” is that it proves the existence of the Higgs field, a field that has been theorized to permeate the universe. It is believed that this pervading field assists the transition of energy to matter.
Because the preliminary confirmation of the Higgs boson has taken place, there is strong speculation in the physics community that Peter Higgs, now 84, will be one of the three recipients for the next Nobel Prize in physics.
Summer officially started on Friday, June 21, at 1:04 a.m. when the sun was at its highest point against the background stars. Of course, we cannot see that backdrop of stars behind the sun; we have to wait until the sun has moved enough so that its brightness is away from that region of the sky.
Like the sun, stars also travel across the sky during the day and the shifting apparent position of the sun will put these stars in our night sky six months later. Since the sun is against the western stars of Gemini when the summer solstice, the first day of summer, occurs, we will see this part of the sky high in the south at midnight during late December.
It has been enjoyable to watch the sky position of Mercury slowly ballet around the position of Venus during the first three weeks of June. The dance of these two planets really started with three worlds in late May when Jupiter appeared near Mercury and Venus.
During the last weekend in May, the arrangements of these three planets formed various triangular shapes. On Monday, May 27, the three formed a “stellar” right triangle. Jupiter has since moved away from Mercury and Venus and currently appears too close to the sun to be seen from our vantage point. As July passes, Jupiter will become visible in the morning sky.
Venus appears low in the west about 30 minutes after sunset, as it will throughout the summer. During July, the brightest star of Leo, Regulus, closes in on Venus and the two make their closest pairing on the early evening of July 22. Even though Venus shines 130 times as bright as Regulus, try to see both in the twilight sky. You can contrast their colors when looking at these two celestial objects through binoculars.
A “growing” lunar crescent will be near Venus in the days before midmonth. On July 10, a thin crescent moon will appear to the lower left of Venus; be sure to look early that evening because the moon will set soon after 9:30 p.m. The next evening, a wider crescent will be directly to the left of Venus. And on July 12, the moon will be found to the upper left of Venus.
Saturn remains near the eastern boundary of Virgo and it comes into sight almost halfway up the sky in the south-southwest as the sky darkens. Although Saturn is always a good sight when viewed through a telescope, the views of it this summer will be particularly fine. The Ringed Planet is presently oriented in such a way that its shadow is cast on its rings. In addition, look during the evening of July 15 for the first quarter moon, when it will be to the lower right of Saturn.
Richard Monda is an astronomer living in the Capital Region.