Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: God particle

This represents the Standard model of elementa...Image via Wikipedia
God particle (n.) - Nickname for the Higgs boson, a theoretical elementary particle that -- if proven to exist -- could explain many inconsistencies in the so-called Standard Model of the universe. The search for the Higgs boson, and its presumed importance, have given it something of a cult following within both science and science fiction, with the "god particle" becoming both a media darling for science journalists and a convenient plot device for authors and screenwriters. In Robert J. Sawyer's novel Flashforward, it was a particle accelerator's attempt to identify the Higgs boson that temporarily transported all of humanity's consciousness 20 years into the future -- a plot point so far absent from the FlashForward TV series based on Sawyer's book. John Ringo's novel Into the Looking Glass uses Higgs boson experiments as the catalyst for an explosion that allows alien invaders to enter our dimension. The film version of Dan Brown's novel Angels and Demons references the Higgs boson repeatedly, though often with dubious scientific accuracy.

I bring it up because: The Large Hadron Collider at CERN -- an instrument designed largely to find the Higgs boson -- became the highest energy particle accelerator in human history this week (breaking its own record) when it slammed together two 1.18 teraelectronvolt proton beams to create a 2.36 TeV collision. So far as kinetic energy goes, that's small, but so far as total energy in a hyperconfined space, that's astronomical. To grossly oversimplify, if physicists can get enough energy to occur in a extremely small space, they hope to recreate conditions necessary to create or observe otherwise unfindable exotic particles -- like the Higgs boson. We're likely still years away from that, but with the LHC online and hard at work crunching subatomic particles at notable fractions of lightspeed, odds are that the notion of a god particle -- if not its outright discovery -- will remain a regular subject of our science and our fiction.