The Higgs Boson Comes to Life

Discovering the Higgs
Though the Higgs boson appears too briefly to be detected directly, physicists at CMS can infer its existence by studying the showers of particles left behind after proton-proton collisions. (T. McCauley, L. Taylor / CERN)

The speed limit for the universe is the speed of light.  The speed of science is a little slower.  Half a century ago, Prof. Francois Englert and his research partner Peter Higgs hypothesized the existence of the Higgs Boson to deal with an enigma in their formulas.  At first nobody took the idea seriously, but slowly, slowly, it caught on. A group of over one hundred nations invested ten billion dollars in the Large Hadron Collider designed particularly to find the Boson.  Construction began in 1998, and the device was turned on in 2008.  Confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson happened in 2013.

It’s a minuscule but critical particle, validating the last piece of the Standard Model used by modern physics.  Leon Lederman, a Nobel Laureate scientist, labeled the Higgs Boson “God Particle,” referring to its importance for physics, and its relation to the book of Genesis.  Fifty years after Englert and Higgs started the search, the scorn they initially received has been transformed into a Nobel Prize.

For Englert though, the redemption is for more than his science; it’s for his life.  Englert is a Holocaust survivor, who spent the war hiding in orphanages, running from his would-be murderers.  His survival was, in retrospect, a blessing for the advancement of all of mankind.  We cannot say that the Higgs Boson would have been lost without him.  But we can say that all together, the many Holocaust survivors, the many children of Holocaust survivors, have enriched all of our lives.  How much richer would the world be if all the victims had been survivors?

The Higgs Boson has always been with us.  We just didn’t think of it, so we didn’t see it.  The dignity of human life must always be with us.  We have to think of it more often; we have to look for it more diligently.

Brian Greene presents an elegant and clear explanation of what the Higgs Boson means in an article in the Smithsonian magazine, published July-August, 2013. A brief description of Englert’s Holocaust experience can be found in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.