Friday, March 15, 2013

The Higgs boson: NOT made in the USA

Mwahahaha, I think I finally defeated that moron at Background Dominated, for I have now written 3 separate posts since his last one, and one can ONLY assume he has been rendered speechless by my brilliance! 

Speaking of posting, I have a new one for you all. And it's gonna be a good one! It's about the famous Higgs boson, or the so-called "God particle".  First of all, I hate that name, but I should save my rantings about that for another post.  

Anyway, I am sure many of you have seen something about this particle in the news lately.  Perhaps you thought, what the hell is this damn thing?  And what does it mean for our lives?  

OK, so first -- what is it?  Well, put simply the Higgs boson is a particle that is responsible for giving other particles mass.  Without it, our understanding of particle physics would mean that certain particles would not have mass.  We do know that some particles, like photons (which are particles of light), do not have mass.  But there are MANY particles that do have mass (like the protons and electrons, which make up atoms).  

The Higgs boson puts into place a very large and important piece of the puzzle for understanding all of particle physics.  It was predicted to exist by Peter Higgs in 1964, and just this past week, it has been detected using a huge particle accelerator located in Switzerland (the Large Hadron Collider or LHC for short). 

Obligatory picture of some cool particle physics stuff.  Courtesy: CERN

Now, I'll reserve discussion of the importance of this discovery to another post, but NOW I'd like to get a little political.  I am the TURBULENT scientist after all ;)

The bottom line is this:  it is VERY likely that this particle would have been discovered in the USA with a project called the Superconducting Supercollider, which was being built back in the 80's and 90's in Texas. This sucker would have been bigger and better than the LHC and, again, probably would have led to the discovery of the Higgs.  But as American politics would have it, this powerful machine got its funding cut in 1993 and now it's just a vacant lot near Waxahachie, TX.

Now a vacant lot, this could have been the birthplace of the Higgs boson

Am I being a pompous American who thinks that only great discoveries should come from this country? NO, not at all.  In fact, I think international collaboration is an excellent way to make scientific progress.  But what I am getting at is this:  By cutting funding for this device, it's likely we delayed the discovery of the Higgs by a number of years.  We also most assuredly lost jobs (everyone who would work at and for the Supercollider), and many scientists would have to go overseas to get their work done.  The cancellation of this project has hurt our country's status as being one of the leaders in scientific discovery and innovation.  

And for what?  What did we gain by canceling this project?  Science funding in the US accounts for a very small fraction of the total federal budget (only about 1% - look it up here).  So, we gained a teeny tiny amount of money back.  But we lost out on some really good science.

Next up: what is good about this discovery?  If that doesn't convince you that cutting the Supercollider was a bad idea, I don't know what will...

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