On July 4, scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) claimed, to cheers and standing ovation, that they had discovered a new subatomic particle that was ‘‘consistent’’ with the long-sought Higgs boson, popularly known as the ‘‘God particle’’. CERN Director Rolf Heuer told scientists that the CERN team had found ‘‘the missing cornerstone of particle physics’’. In a layman’s language, in theoretical physics, the boson is considered the key to comprehending why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give an object its weight. The Higgs boson was predicted by eminent British physicist Peter Higgs and five other physicists in 1964 — seen as the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe. The Standard Model describes 12 fundamental particles, governed by four basic forces. But the model only explains a part of it, leaving a gap between what is seen, or what is possible to see, and what must be ‘‘out there’’. If the Higgs boson is really discovered, as some scientists believe, they can explain the gap in our understanding of the universe.
It was Leon Lederman, a pioneer in the field, who first described the Higgs boson as ‘‘Goddamn particle’’ as the particle was seemingly impossible to isolate. Interestingly, Lederman wanted to give the title The Goddamn Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? to his book, but the editor thought that it would be too controversial and told him to change the title to The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? — hence the ‘‘God particle’’. Readers would also do well to know that the subatomic particle ‘‘boson’’ is named after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who did an excellent job in the field of particle physics and changed the way it had been studied. The research done by Bose, aided by Albert Einstein’s work, laid the foundation for the discovery of the ‘‘God particle’’. No wonder, then, that paying tribute to Bose’s work, CERN spokesman Paulo Glubellino, last October, should say that ‘‘India is like a historic father of the project’’. This must serve as a huge encouragement for the Indian physicists working in the field and might help make one more Bose!
The Higgs idea that particles were massless when the universe began but acquired mass a fraction of a second later due to their interaction with a theoretical field, known as the Higgs field, will sound highly intriguing to many, but this very mystery could be a pointer to what is called God, which both philosophers and physicists have been trying to understand in their own ways. The celebrated Cambridge physicist Prof Stephen Hawking, in his classic book A Brief History of Time, mentions God several times and then goes to the extent of raising the question as to whether God had any role in the creation of the universe — questioning God thus! Now that there is a spectacular discovery at the CERN that looks like the Higgs boson, with John Ellis, a theoretical CERN physicist, saying that ‘‘it’s great to discover a new particle but you have to find out what its properties are’’, there is a great possibility of having a better grasp of how the universe has been functioning. In fact the question is whether this will be man’s ultimate success in decoding the secrets of the universe and whether, that way, man will know everything, including God — nay, the presence or absence of God! Or is it that God and the ‘‘God particle’’ will remain a mystery because these are bound to remain so? To put it in another way, are we standing at a God crossroads? Good luck to the dedicated CERN team in their wonderful journey in the future. These are the scientists who we all must salute for their relentless effort to help mankind march forward. Or is it that God is offended because we might soon know his secrets?