Strangely Charming: Raging Hadrons

Opinion by Jack Cackler
Feb. 10, 2010, 12:31 a.m.

Strangely Charming: Raging HadronsLast week’s column searched far off into the cosmos for signs of life. This week’s column will instead search deep within the world all around us, to the tiny subatomic particles that make up every aspect of our lives. In particular, the column will look into the quest for the Higgs Boson, the mythical “God particle” whose existence could help address the nature of the universe once and for all, that eluded Einstein to his dying day. The Higgs Boson (if it exists) would explain how things with mass (just about everything) work. Needless to say, it’s a pretty high priority to find, and it’s basically understood that whoever finds it gets a free Nobel Prize. Considering you may have several trillion in you right now, I suggest you start looking.

For a brief overview on particle physics, the Standard Model is the current front runner in the race to describe the universe. The Standard Model predicts a host of fun particles and forces that theoretically make up everything in the universe. Quarks, three of which are in every proton and neutron in the universe, are a crucial component of the model. Murray Gell-Mann derived the name from a single line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, basically because the name sounded cool. Quarks were first experimentally verified in 1968 right here at SLAC (formerly the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center)! The first two identified quarks were classified as “up” and “down” to indicate that they opposed each other. Having nothing left to oppose “up” and “down,” Gell-Mann dubbed the third quark he found “strange,” and the name stuck. “Charmed” (strange’s pair), “top,” and “bottom” round out the final three quarks of the Standard model.

While quarks (along with leptons) make up the matter in the universe, bosons mediate force between quarks and leptons. The major identified bosons to date are photons, the weak nuclear force, Z bosons and gluons (which hold quarks together). Finding the Higgs Boson would complete the set, which particle physicists would be able to place on their shelves next to their action figures and trading cards.

So how do you find a Higgs Boson? Particle accelerators are generally either long straight or circular tubes in which particles are sped up faster and faster until they collide with a target. The collision, the particle physics equivalent of a piñata bursting, can emit several subatomic particles. Building bigger and more energetic accelerators is like hiring the big kid down the street to whack the piñata so hard that even the candies wedged deep in a corner fly out.

The recently opened Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is the world’s most energetic accelerator. Located deep underground near Geneva, Switzerland, the LHC is about 5 miles in diameter, and was first tested in late 2008. Its very existence has caused some controversy, causing conspiracy theorists to protest its opening, claiming it would create black holes that would swallow the Earth (though it could create tiny black holes, they are too small to do any damage. Really.), and was even featured in a Dan Brown book. While the LHC was plagued by malfunctions for months, all problems have been fixed, and the LHC officially became the most energetic accelerator last November. Just last Wednesday, LHC officials formally announced a plan over the next two years to accelerate collisions up to 14 TeV (for reference, about 70,000 times the energy released during nuclear fission of a Uranium atom). While the LHC also does important research looking for antimatter, dark matter and a whole host of other physical mysteries, the search for the Higgs Boson is a central function of the LHC.

In addition to aiding the search for stealthy subatomic particles, particle accelerator technology has given boundless gifts to the world.  Technology developed for particle accelerators is often used in cancer therapy to specifically target malignant tumors. Computer chips are made of semiconductors that are doped with ions, a process performed by accelerators. There are hundreds more examples of successful spin-offs from particle physical technology that effect practical and powerful change in our everyday lives. It is extraordinary to see technology developed to answer curious questions about the universe being put to work to save and improve lives all around the world.

Having said that, I think there is a lot to be said for the quest for knowledge for its own purpose. One of the greatest things about science is that it seems that the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. Figuring out the answers to the riddles of the universe is incredibly rewarding, and propels us into the future. Regardless of what you study, a healthy mixture of curiosity and hard work will hopefully light up some of those mysteries for you and for the world, and maybe, just maybe, one day you’ll get the chance to smash your own research together at the speed of awesome.

Jack is still offering free cookies to anyone who finds a mistake, or free Nobel prizes to anyone who finds a Higgs Boson in his column. Contact him at [email protected].

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