Heroes of the Week: Higgs et al, and the LHC Project

The ATLAS (“A Toroidal LHC Apparatus”) detector at the LHC

Today’s heroes of the week go to the six theorists who formulated the Higgs Mechanism in the 1960s: EnglertBrout, HiggsGuralnikHagen and Kibble, and the entire LHC (Large Hadron Collider) Project, in particular the two great experiments, CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) and ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus), which have effectively confirmed the existence of the corresponding Higgs particle this week.

The discovery of the Higgs is surely the most important scientific discovery of my lifetime so far. For the first time in human history, we know what mass is. The Higgs Boson, this new fundamental particle of the universe, and its corresponding field, can explain why some particles have this peculiar property.

The theory of the Higgs mechanism is beautiful, elegant and brilliant: an amazing, powerful, unifying theory. Amazingly, we now know that it is true: the Higgs mechanism describes how the Universe really works. This beautiful theory, confirmed by two of the most precise experiments in human history has given humans a glimpse of the mechanics of the heart of the Universe. In the (slightly flippant) metaphor of Stephen Hawkins, we have at least glimpsed, for a fleeting second, the “mind of God“.

The LHC is undoubtedly one of the most incredible machines, and one of the greatest pieces of engineering on the planet:

  • 26,659 m circumference
  • 9300 superconducting magnets, all cooled to 271.3°C (1.9 K)- close to absolute zero
  • The colliding protons travel at 99.9999991% of the speed of light
  • 600 million collisions take place every second
  • The internal space is the emptiest known space in the Universe- the pressure is 10-13 atm, ten times less than the pressure on the Moon
  • The collisions will generate temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the Sun- the hottest known space in the Galaxy
  • We record enough data to fill 100,000 dual layer DVDs every year

It has, perhaps understandably, received criticism over its cost. The LHC is one of the most expensive scientific instruments of all time, costing around £2.8bn. However, the entire collaboration involves around 10,000 physicists- larger than some universities, and it is performing research at the very forefront of human knowledge. Let us remember that  all research, however abstract and fundamental lead to untold possibilities in the future. Let’s not forget that nuclear power arose from Einstein’s musings on relativity; the transistor, basis of modern computing technology from Quantum Mechanics, and the internet itself originates with the CERN collaboration). But perhaps, more importantly, still, as Brian Cox has said, “Understanding the universe is self-evidently a sensible thing to do, because our civilization is built on it.

The £2.8bn spent by countries across Europe on this incredible project into the nature of our Universe is less than the annual military budget of Switzerland. The UK spends, directly and indirectly, just £104 million annually on the LHC. The cost to renew Trident would be over 1,000 times as much: £130 billion. As Brian Cox puts it, we spent more in one year bailing out the banks than all scientific spending since the time of Jesus.

There could hardly be a more worthy cause.

Villain of the Week: George Osborne

With the economy in a double dip recession, at least partly of the government’s making, George Osborne has spent much of the week trying to implicate the previous government in the Libor scandal, stating that they were “clearly involved”. These claims, although not implausible, have been falsified. The evidence shows that Ed Balls and the previous Labour government did not press the banks into manipulating their Libor figures. George Osborne did not have the evidence to make these claims, they were nothing more than a smear, aimed at distracting the public from the current government’s worryingly close relationship with the banks. George Osborne should apologise.

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