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Ask Slashdot: What Are the Implications of Finding the Higgs Boson? 683

PhunkySchtuff writes "OK, so we're all hearing the news that they've found the Higgs boson. What are some of the more practical implications that are likely to come out of this discovery? I realize it's hard to predict this stuff — who would have thought that shining a bright light on a rod of ruby crystal would have lead to digital music on CDs and being able to measure the distance to the moon to an accuracy of centimeters? If the Higgs boson is the particle that gives other particles mass, would our being able to manipulate the Higgs lead to being able to do things with mass such as we can do with electromagnetism? Will we be able to shield or block the Higgs from interacting with other particles, leading to a reduction in mass (and therefore weight?) Are there other things that this discovery will lead to in the short to medium term?"
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Ask Slashdot: What Are the Implications of Finding the Higgs Boson?

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  • by Bootsy Collins ( 549938 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @01:52PM (#40554259)

    Full disclosure: I'm a physicist with some high energy/field theory in my background; but I stopped doing anything with high energy theory twenty years ago. Maybe someone who works in the field will disagree with me. And also, some of what I'm saying here I said on /. nine years ago, when someone asked what the practical implications were of experiments that were shedding light on the quark-gluon plasma, because my answer is close to the same.

    With that said . . .I can't imagine any short (or even medium) term practical application. In fact, I can't even imagine practical value in the long term. Mind, it's certainly possible that down the road someone cleverer than I am will come up with something. In fact, that's the normal way in which major technological advances have occurred. For instance, Schottky wasn't trying to invent the transistor when he started studying the quantum behavior of transition metals. Michael Faraday didn't really see any public benefit to understanding electromagnetism, either. It's always worked like this: pure research has historically been without such obvious benefit.

    But nevertheless, I don't want to suggest that that's the eventual result here, because I don't believe it will be. I think that would be disingenuous of me. I highly doubt that an improved understanding of Higgs physics will ever produce any wonderful and amazing technological advance. To me, the motivation is simply that understanding and knowledge -- especially of something like how the Universe got to be the way it is, and why it works the way it does -- is inherently a good thing. It has value by definition. Perhaps my least favorite thing about our society is that we are trained to evaluate the worth of things in terms of their economic value. Just like love, understanding has its own value, in my mind -- bereft of any "practical" value.

    Let me give you an example of what I mean. To the best of our ability to tell, there's only one place where elements heavier than carbon (such as nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, etc. etc.) can be formed in large amounts -- and that's inside a star. Only elements as heavy as carbon or lighter can be formed in the early universe (and, for that matter, the amounts of Li, Be, B and C formed in Big Bang Nucleosynthesis are very very small); for heavier elements, and for larger amounts of carbon etc., you need a star. Now, if you didn't already know this, stop and think about it for a second. A huge chunk of you, perhaps all of you, was inside a star at one time. It appears that you and I are star debris. And it gets even better. The way that large amounts of these elements, forged within a star, can get out of the star is if the star supernovas -- dies at the end of its lifetime with a big boom. That big boom also serves to make very heavy elements -- such as uranium, for instance -- that cannot be made even in a star while it's burning away. There's uranium, and other similar very heavy elements, on our planet. Do you see what I'm getting at? Much of the atoms that make all of us up, that make this planet up, were at one time inside a star (or stars) that lived its life, supernovaed, and spewed out debris. Eventually, maybe a few hundred million years later, that stuff is part of our planet, part of our atmosphere, our water, part of you and me. We are all brothers and sisters; we all came from the same place, sorta.

    Now, that knowledge will never make me any money. It will never have any practical benefit in my life. And yet, I consider myself immensely richer for knowing it.

    Understanding has its own value.

  • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @02:03PM (#40554425)

    . . . from a book by Physicist Leonard Mlodinow:

    Sure, the physics behind the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator in Switzerland, is a monument to the human mind. But so are the scale and complexity of the organization that build it -- one LHC experiment alone required more that 2,500 scientists, engineers, and technicians in 37 countries to work together, solving problems cooperatively in an ever-changing and complex environment. The ability to form organizations that can create such achievements is as impressive at the achievements themselves.

    -- From his book "Subilminal"

  • Re:Probably (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Remus Shepherd ( 32833 ) <remus@panix.com> on Thursday July 05, 2012 @02:08PM (#40554501) Homepage

    But I don't think that this will cause new ways to blow things up - you may need something bigger than the CERN accelerator to make things happen.

    Actually...one of the exciting findings is that the Higgs boson's mass is lower than expected. So low that the standard model predicts that the vacuum should be unstable. That means any space with no particles in it should be boiling away, with the zero point energy converting into real energy. Since we probably would have noticed if the universe had spontaneously disintegrated, that suggests something needs to be fixed in the standard model.

    If fixing the standard model leads to a way for us to utilize the zero point energy, this discovery might just lead to a new way to blow things up. And if -- ghod forbid -- we discover a way to make the vacuum unstable, then we might learn how to make one really big boom. Just one, because it will consume the entire universe, but that one will be REALLY BIG.

  • by OzPeter ( 195038 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @02:11PM (#40554561)

    A Nobel award is given to at most 3 people. But in modern times theoretical research is not something that a single person does in their basement .. so there are 6 people (actually one is deceased - so isn't eligible because of that) who could make a claim for the glory. See higgs-boson-nobel-prize-headache [guardian.co.uk] for a better run down on all of this.
    Interestingly Higgs wasn't the first to publish on this subject. And I heard yesterday on NPR from a former student of Higgs who suggested he wanted to call it the "God Damned Particle" - but it seems that the name went all PC.

  • Re:Probably (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tom17 ( 659054 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @02:19PM (#40554685) Homepage

    Was "ghod forbid" a typo? I like it. There are so many sayings in general use that use the 'g' word that it's to inconvenient to refrain from using. If we use ghod (or Ghod?) then we can use it and release any tie to the big G, who I don't want to attribute any credit to when I say things like "Good Ghod that thing is HUGE!".

  • by BMOC ( 2478408 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @02:21PM (#40554721)

    Not necessarily fall as in need revision, but we know this already. The basic matter/force particles have been known for a while, except Gravity. We couldn't find any particle that linked us to mass, the search for the Higgs was just that, a search for an explanation for mass.

    However, we know just based on observing the heavens (where all science truly begins), that it doesn't end at gravity . There are clearly forces out there that we didn't predict with our current models, namely dark matter/dark energy. It is currently theorized that dark matter is a manifestation (of fields/particles) that we currently do not have in the "Standard" model. The Standard model was doomed as soon as we discovered that galaxies are accelerating away from each other.

  • Re:Probably (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kikito ( 971480 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @02:29PM (#40554855) Homepage

    > the modern way to wipe out humanity is with bio-engineering of custom plagues.

    That is so 1990. The modern way to wipe out humanity is debt. Why kill everyone, when you can make them all pay tribute instead? And if someone protests, you tell your media to blame the "crysis". And then keep on going until there are only some ritches, the army, and the poor. And then you have won.

  • Re:Probably (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jbezorg ( 1263978 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @03:02PM (#40555301)

    I'm predicting a run on bigger rocks

    Worked for the Centauri against the Narn.

  • Re:Probably (Score:5, Interesting)

    by radtea ( 464814 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @03:30PM (#40555667)

    So low that the standard model predicts that the vacuum should be unstable

    Not quite. The Higgs looks like it is just above the threshold for a stable EM vacuum, which is quite curious, and suggests that there may be some new physics that drives the Higgs mass down to that point, but not below it.

  • by slew ( 2918 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @04:37PM (#40556705)

    It validates the Higgs mechanism, which explains why elementary particles have mass. Now the Higgs boson is no longer considered hypothetical, likewise the Higgs mechanism and the Higgs field, mediated by the Higgs bosun. Speaking as a layman.

    Speaking as a layman, I don't think this discovery validates the Higgs mechanism yet. All they have done is found what looks like a particle at 125 GeV/c2 (about the same as 130 protons). They don't know what it does yet. Yes it looks like a duck, but it hasn't quacked yet...

    About the closest analogy that I can come up with is that they smashed billions of cars into each other and listened to the result. They know how heavy all other known cars are, and they are looking to see if there's a rare Tesla Model S in there but they don't know how heavy it is because they've never seen it before, but they have some rough idea it's between 115 and 130 units. They make the assumption that a car crash would make a certain characteristic crash-sound based on how heavy it was. Of course there is a whole continnuum of sound because no crashes are the same and after the cars crash, they might break into other parts, but they kinda know how heavy the major parts of disintegrating cars are and what sound they might make as well. After listening to all theses crashes and doing lots of math they conclude that they have found that it is highly likely some car around 125 units heavy was part of those billions of smashed cars and no other car they know of is that heavy.

    From that they conclude they have found the Tesla Model S and it is 125 units heavy. Now that the Tesla Model S is no longer considered hypothetical, likewize the assertion that it goes 0-60 in 4.4 seconds and 300miles on a full charge must also be true (whoops, better not make those assumption until someone takes an unsmashed one for a test drive, right?)

  • Re:Probably (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 05, 2012 @05:03PM (#40557075)

    I just finished treatment for a cut finger-bone tip - total bill as would be presented to the uninsured $90K - negotiated down by Blue Cross to less than $10K...

    If the insurance companies can just take their medical bills and divide by 12 before paying, why can't the uninsured?

  • Re:Antigravity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Thursday July 05, 2012 @07:06PM (#40558331) Homepage

    If it turns out that a mass's resistance to acceleration is a scalar field effect (one of the possible Higgs-boson mass models), it seems to me that gravity got a whole lot more complicated since it has to interact with particles the same relative way to yield exactly the same equivalent mass.

    Not really? In General Relativity, energy and mass are the same thing, and mass/energy is the source of gravity. Matter (as in particles with intrinsic mass) is one form of mass/energy, but is actually not special at all in terms of our current understanding of gravity. Photons have zero intrinsic mass, but still have gravity due to their energy.

    So if a particle's intrinsic mass is the result of its potential wrt the Higgs Field, then that will also create gravity in direct proportion to the Higgs potential. And voila, you get the correct gravity without GR having to know anything about the Higgs Field or care why protons but not photons couple to it.

    This only complicates gravity if you assume gravitational and inertial mass aren't the same and then want to explain why they always appear to have the same value.

    Consider that people once thought that by applying a constant force, you could accelerate arbitrarily "fast", but the universe didn't turn out to work that way.

    People once thought that gravitational and inertial masses might not be the same thing because there was no particular reason to assume they were, and it could just be a coincidence that all empirical measurements said they were.

    Then GR came along and gave a very strong theoretical reason for why they should be the same thing, and those reasons had experimental implications that were subsequently born out.

    It's possible that whatever supplants GR will do away with this equivalence, but the appeal to "well we thought things differently in the past" is a weak argument for suspecting that it will.

    Personally, I think that just like Conservation of Momentum and Conservation of Energy readily survived the transition from a Newtonian to Einstenian universe, the General Principle of Relativity will survive whatever supplants the General Theory of Relativity.

"Oh my! An `inflammatory attitude' in alt.flame? Never heard of such a thing..." -- Allen Gwinn, allen@sulaco.Sigma.COM