No, it’s not the “God Particle”
Like thousands of other people (including, it seemed, 99% of the people I associate with on Twitter) I watched entranced at the announcement from CERN this week that the two teams working with the Large Hadron Collider had independently found better evidence for the existence of the postulated Higgs Boson than they had announced a year ago. Like thousands of other people I had no idea what the physics was all about but I trusted the scientists to be reporting facts which had been backed up by real experimental evidence.
A point overlooked by much of the lay media was that the Higgs Boson had not been isolated or explicitly detected. The theory says that there must be a particle of a particular mass to account for the way we see the structure and behaviour of the universe. This experiment closed in by showing that there is a very high probability (the famous “5 sigma”) that something exists at very close to this mass, but what that is has yet to be determined. As one of the presenters said: “This is the beginning”. Science is always like that. It is always a beginning, because there can never be proof, only evidence. This is how science differs from religion and other human intellectual endeavours. It is what makes science exciting – knowing that there is always more to know.
It was touching to see Peter Higgs in the audience and to see his emotional reaction to he announcement. It’s been a long wait since he first suggested the existence of the particle in 1964 so he was entitled to a tear or two. There is a traditional class war between theoretical physicists who develop the theories and experimental physicists who build and use the apparatus to test the theories. The LHC is experimental physics at its peak, so it was good to hear that when someone asked for a response from the theoreticians in the audience Dr Fabiola Gianotti (who had presented the results from the ATLAS experiment) was heard to say “Peter’s over there. Ask him”.
In 1969 I watched as people first stood somewhere in our solar system other than Earth. I have the same feeling of excitement when I watch science head downwards into the structure of matter and backwards to the beginning of time. Anyone who is not excited by the progress of science must have a different set of emotions to me.
While it was not pleasant to see the media almost universally use the expression “god particle” (this discovery has nothing to with the existence or otherwise of any god), I do hope that they all were much more careful when reporting the story than the UK Daily Telegraph was back in 2010.