Caltech researchers tackle many projects that can change lives, from curing chronic diseases to producing artificial fuels that might curtail the need to drill for petroleum.
But professors at the institute say a major new discovery announced this week — the apparent observation of the long-theorized Higgs boson — is big news in their world, but not so much for the rest of us.
“It affects our understanding on the laws of nature,” said Caltech physics professor Mark Wise. “It is not going to affect technological developments. It doesn’t really impact our everyday life.”
On Wednesday, physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research conference in Geneva announced the possible discovery of the Higgs boson, the “God particle” that may provide other subatomic particles with mass.
A group of about 40 Caltech professors and students were involved in the experiments that led to the discovery, many of them working out of a control room at the Pasadena institute.
“Up to now our students have been pillars of the experiment for many years,” Maria Spiropulu, a physics professor at Caltech, stated in an email from Geneva.
The discovery was based on data collected at the Large Hadron Collider — a 17-mile-long accelerator on the border of France and Switzerland that throws protons toward each other. An estimated 1 billion collisions were required to create what is believed to be the Higgs boson.
The Standard Model of particle physics, the theoretical framework for modern scientific understanding that crosses several disciplines, is incomplete without the Higgs boson.
The basic theory behind Higgs is that a force field stretches across the universe, affecting subatomic particles in different ways. Some aren’t very affected, while others are slowed down.
“If [the Higgs boson] wasn’t there, atoms would be much bigger,” Wise said. “It does play a very important role in how the world works.”
Whether the particle discovered is the Higgs boson or not, it will likely lead to further studies on mass, dark matter and dark energy, Spiropulu said.
Harvey Newman, a Caltech physics professor who leads the institute’s operation with Spiropulu, helped develop the network that links the Large Hadron Collider with the United States so data can flow between the two continents. The discovery was shared with the world through a webcast system developed at Caltech.
Now, scientists need to collect more data to confirm that their discovery is the all-encompassing “God particle.” The process could take years.
“The Standard Model, for all its successes, leaves a great number of basic questions unanswered,” Newman stated via email. “So whether we find that the [Standard Model] is correct in its own limited domain or not, we have before us decades of exploration.”