The Goddamn Particle
There is, we believe, a wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter. It’s as if something, or someone, wants to prevent us from attaining the ultimate knowledge.
This invisible barrier that keeps us from knowing the truth is called the Higgs field. Its icy tentacles reach into every corner of the universe, and its scientific and philosophical implications raise large goose bumps on the skin of a physicist. The Higgs field works its black magic through—what else?—a particle. This particle goes by the name of the Higgs boson.
This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle, Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.
There have been times in mankind’s quest for a rational understanding of the world when progress was rapid, breakthroughs abounded, and scientists were full of optimism. At other times utter confusion reigned. Frequently the most confused periods, times of intellectual crisis and total incomprehension, were themselves harbingers of the illuminating breakthroughs to come.
In the past few decades in particle physics, we have been in a period of such curious intellectual stress. Particle physicists have been using their giant accelerators to dissect the parts and processes of the universe. The quest has, in recent years, been aided by astronomers and astrophysicists, who figuratively peer into giant telescopes to scan the heavens for residue sparks and ashes of a cataclysmic explosion that they are convinced took place 15 billion years ago, which they call the Big Bang.
We were proceeding nicely, perhaps too nicely, when we stumbled upon an oddity, a seemingly adversarial force afoot in the universe. Something that seems to pop out of the all-pervading space in which our planets, stars, and galaxies are embedded. Something we cannot yet detect and which, one might say, has been put there to test and confuse us. Were we getting too close? Is there a nervous Grand Wizard of Oz who sloppily modifies the archaeological record?
The issue is whether physicists will be confounded by this puzzle or whether we will, as Einstein put it, “know the mind of God.”
This entire piece is an excerpt, abbreviated, from Leon Lederman’s superb book, The God Particle.