Happy to wait

Why are physicists such patient people?

Consider the recent announcement that scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) are closer to identifying the elusive Higgs boson particle. A long-sought lynchpin of how the universe is made, the so-called “God particle” would help explain why some objects have mass, while others possess only energy.

Though not yet a definitive discovery, identifying the Higgs boson would be on par with effectively proving The Big Bang Theory, says Eric Carlson, a physics professor who has researched and taught various levels of particle physics to undergraduate and graduate students for 25 years.

While researchers in other scientific fields such as genetics might trumpet a breakthrough of this magnitude, the global physics community seems to have received this news with a combination of cautious optimism and muted excitement.

“Physicists are skeptical by nature. It’s as if we have been hunting ducks for a long time. Even though it looks like a duck, we haven’t heard it quack yet,” says Carlson, who has watched previous false alarms for the Higgs boson particle come and go.

Though a complicated subject matter for the general public, he explains that the two research teams’ findings serve as “tantalizing hints” for the scientific community that has been searching for the particle since proposed by physicist Peter Higgs in the 1960s. Carlson believes the researchers’ work with the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator – holds great promise.

He plans to discuss it in his graduate class when they quantize the massive scalar field, as the Higgs field is a perfect example, or when he teaches Modern Physics again next year.

But for those who study the smallest particles in the universe, waiting a few more months to see the big picture is worth it.

“Discovering the Higgs boson could lead to major scientific discoveries and new theories about things we can’t even imagine yet,” Carlson says.

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