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The mass of the matter

india Updated: Mar 30, 2008 22:49 IST
Prakash Chandra

The ‘greatest experiment’ ever in physics will soon get under way. A gigantic machine in a vast tunnel below the French-Swiss border is ready to hunt down the ‘God particle’. Named after British physicist, Peter Higgs, who first proposed it in 1964, Higgs boson is the ultimate particle that explains why all others have mass. Higgs showed how a field that clings to particles like electrons, photons, quarks, and gluons, produces their mass, making them heavy. Particles of light are oblivious to this, while others wade through it like an elephant in tar. In other words, particles can weigh nothing, but as soon as they are in the Higgs boson field, they become heavy. So the Higgs boson is dubbed the ‘God particle’, as it gives mass to all matter.

The only way to get at the elusive Higgs, however, is to recreate the conditions when matter must have first formed: the stupendous energy of the Big Bang. Scientists thought of slamming sub-atomic particles at each other at these energies so that the Higgs would reveal itself in the resulting sub-atomic rubble. But Higgs can be detected just once in every 10 trillion collisions. Physicists hope to do just that using the super-energetic Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, near Geneva. It is the most powerful high-energy particle accelerator ever built, and will whirl protons to near-light speed in a 17-mile tunnel, with temperatures touching -271°C.

Finding Higgs will not only confirm how particles acquire mass, but could explain dark matter and dark energy that account for 96 per cent of the Universe. For these sub-atomic collisions recreate on a small scale the conditions that prevailed in the infant Universe after the Big Bang. Higgs could even help to unify the four fundamental forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetic forces. We will then know for sure whether space-time holds dimensions other than our own. Won’t that make many of us go, “My God!”