The discovery of the Higgs boson particle goes to the very heart of why basic research is vital to our society and why we must fund it.
ON the Fourth of July, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland, announced the discovery of a new particle that seemed to confirm the existence of the long-sought Higgs boson. I am one of those scientists pursuing research at CERN while also teaching physics at the University of Washington. I have been looking for the Higgs for more than half of my career. To me, this discovery is one of personal and professional fulfillment.
The story of the Higgs has transcended the narrow confines of particle physics and captured the interest of a broad segment of the public. It has also generated skepticism about the benefits of large-scale science, which are not always immediately apparent to the public.
This announcement goes to the very heart of why basic research is vital to our society and why we must fund it.
The Higgs particle plays a central role in the best theory we have to describe nature in its tiniest dimensions, what physicists refer to as the Standard Model. Finding the Higgs particle proves the existence of what is called the Higgs field, where other elementary particles acquire mass as they travel through it. More importantly, confirming the Higgs field allows physicists to learn about the universe a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, when the four fundamental forces of nature acted as one.
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We believe that this symmetry between the forces, which existed at the very beginning, broke down as the universe started growing and cooling. By using particle accelerators such as the one at CERN to propel particles at very high energies, nearly the speed of light, we expect to see the fundamental forces being unified again. The Higgs is a key piece of the puzzle in this quest for unification. It brings us a big step closer to understanding the beginning of the universe.
Why should we care? I could tell you about all the wonderful spin-offs of particle physics, like the World Wide Web (invented at CERN), or Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanners for detecting cancer and accelerators for treating it, or distributed computing. I could point out countless things we use in everyday life that exist only because we understand the physics behind them. But the truth is, we don’t do physics for the spin-offs. I get up in the morning and go to school or to work, for 30 years now, only because I want to know what the universe is made of, how it came to be, and how it works.
Denying the human quest for knowledge would be denying the very nature of mankind. From the cavemen who experimented with plant seeds, to the astronomers of Mesopotamia, to the idea of the atom in ancient Greece, curiosity has always been in our DNA. It is this curiosity that has propelled our progress. If we didn’t care to push the limits of our knowledge, we would have been extinct long ago, consumed by the much stronger forces of nature that we can tame only by using the strength of our brains.
I am mystified when the question of whether to support science comes up. Do we want our children to be stuck exactly where we are today, or do we want them to live in a world that has solved the problem of declining oil reserves, cured cancer and found a way to produce food for 7 billion people? Only science can provide the answers.
I understand the financial concerns of the public, especially in an era of higher-than-normal unemployment and worries about national debt. But we didn’t become who we are today by thinking only about our short-term future. The applications of science create the economy of the future and if we are shortsighted today to save a few million dollars, we will pay in the trillions tomorrow.
As happy as I am for our big discovery, and as hard as I worked for it myself, it pains me a little that it didn’t happen in a U.S. laboratory. It could have.
In 1992, Congress killed the Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been built in Texas and would have found the Higgs 10 years earlier than CERN. The cancellation happened after the country had already invested $2 billion and years of work by thousands of U.S. physicists.
Funding for particle physics has been going down ever since. Europe, despite an economy arguably in worse shape than ours, has taken the lead. And it is not only in the field of particle physics. We can no longer presume that the best minds in the world will come to the U.S. to pursue their scientific interests. China is now spending billions more on scientific research than in their recent past. The world economy is fueled by technology, and the big technological breakthroughs of tomorrow will happen where basic scientific research is booming today.
The Higgs breakthrough in Geneva is an achievement to be cheered. But the U.S. is being left behind in breakthroughs of this kind because of its inability in recent decades to make basic research a national priority. That is nothing to cheer about.
Anna Goussiou is an experimental particle physicist and a professor of physics at the University of Washington. She lives in Seattle.