In late July, the national news touted the discovery of the “God particle,” the missing link in the study of particle physics.
The confirmation of the Higgs boson came with a 0.00006 percent caveat; in lay terms, a very slim chance the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland were wrong.
The Higgs boson, as explained in a Los Angeles Times article, is “the long-sought elementary particle that gives mass to the universe.”
Essentially, this subatomic particle is the last piece of the puzzle for explaining the birth, content and even attributes of everything in the universe – from stars and planets to the makeup of the human body.
Scientists found this miniscule, elusive particle by recreating the Big Bang – the scientific theory of the origin of the universe – on a much smaller scale.
Among those paying particularly close attention to what occurred in Geneva have been the cosmologists and astronomers who make a living in Inyo County tracking the cosmic remnants on the Big Bang.
This tracking is done at two CalTech facilities: the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (the “Big Ears” rising out of the sage just north of State Route 168) and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy perched in the White Mountains.
The facilities and the scientists who work there constitute a unique resource for those who never advanced past high school chemistry but are innately curious.
Is there a relationship between the smallest of scientific inquiry (subatomic bits and pieces) and the Big Ears watching and listening to space from the valley floor since the 1950s? The answer is yes.
“Science is a model of how things work,” explained Dr. Erik Leitch from his office in the shadow of a 90-foot diameter telescope at the OVRO, an office he shares with a black Lab.
The Higgs boson is named for British physicist Peter Higgs, who with others, developed a model for “how things work” that particle physicists have been used for years. “If the Higgs particle, or boson, could be found it would validate that model and advance the study to other questions,” Leitch said.
That scientific model of how things work holds true from the study of the Higgs boson and the energy fields that permeate the atom to the study of the universe, cosmology, Leitch’s field, though that connection wasn’t fully realized until recently. “When scientists started working in the field of cosmic microwave background (CMB, what Big Ears track), particle physicists and cosmologists were not connected,” Lietch said.
Essentially, the massive energy that is generated in a particle collider – the tool used to find the God particle – had not been created since the Big Bang. Scientists have been working on the “how” of the Big Bang by looking at light and energy waves finally reaching the earth’s telescopes while physicists were creating their own mini Big Bang to find that elusive Higgs particle that would confirm both fields of study were on the right track.
“In the Higgs field, we see the same pattern in something immeasurably huge. Higgs is a tiny little particle, with the localized oscillation of a field that permeates the universe,” Leitch said.
In other words, everything on Earth – every element, every energy field, every light and radiowave – can be traced to the Big Bang. Nothing new has come along since.
This is the stuff of goose bumps. As Carl Sagan wrote in “Cosmos,” “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
There is an irony in the choice of “God particle” to define or explain the Higgs boson. The term is attributed to the Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman’s 1993 book “God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?” According to Leitch, the scientific buzz is that Lederman referred to that “godd**n elusive particle” and his publishers changed the term to be more politically correct. The term is also misleading, implying an end of the scientific search when, in fact, the discovery of the missing link just propels the inquiry.
Back to the beginning. According to Leitch, the technology incorporated into the radiowave observatories got its boost during World War II for communications and detection. “We didn’t know there were radiowaves from outerspace,” he said, “but (scientists) started seeing signals from places they didn’t expect.” The waves of light, or energy, the scientists wanted to track came in longer wave lengths than visible light and required a relatively massive telescope to detect, very much like the largest lens opening in a camera required in low-light settings. The first telescopes moved into the valley in the late 1950s. Their placement replicated a telescope the size of the entire array.
The OVRO has been put to work on different projects over the years. Leitch is currently studying cosmic microwave background, or CMB, the radiation left over from the origin of the universe. “It’s the backlight to everything that’s happened since,” said Leitch.
Every day Leitch charts the CMB, he is seeing farther back in time. Light travels 186,000 miles per second, a nearly inconceivable speed but it still has a speed limit. Leitch uses the example of a changing traffic light where the delay between the change from amber to red is measured in nanoseconds and hardly noticeable. “On a cosmic scale,” he said, “the delays can amount to billions of years. When we look at the sun, we’re seeing how it was 8.5 minutes ago.” When we see the stars, we’re seeing light that has taken years to get to us. Leitch studies 14-billion-year-old CMB. “We get an image of what things looked like 14 billion years ago. The light hasn’t changed since its origin.
“The chunk of space we see today is 65 million light years in radius. We think the physical size is much larger but there’s not been enough time passed to see the rest of it. The bubble we see today is just the tip of the iceberg.
“As far as we know, the Big Bang is what created the universe. Every day, more light from the Big Bang reaches our telescopes.”
The Bang was not an explosion of material, but an explosion of space itself. The universe has been expanding ever since and CARMA has been studying the formation of stars and planets, all initiated by that Big Bang. With stars forming at the core of clouds of dust and gas, radio-wave telescopes are necessary as light does not escape the dense cloud.
As Sagan said, everything that exists in us and our environment, started with the Bang; and that simple fact confirms what Leitch calls “the very precise scientific theory of how the universe began.”
The concept of the Big Bang is hard enough to grasp, but, for scientists, the next question is what was there before and what initiated the Bang. Leitch goes into a discussion of potential energy fields, phase transitions and the theory of inflation, all elements necessary for a Big Bang.
Right when you think your brain will explode, Leitch gets to the punch line. To produce the Big Bang, there would have to be an energy field very much like that of the Higgs field’s.
The discovery of the Higgs boson validates the scientific model that also explains the Big Bang.
While it is nearly impossible to put in 25 words or less the relationships between the Higgs boson and the universe, between the smallest and largest of scientific study, or to understand these concepts with a General Science high school education, the wonder of the discovery in Geneva is that in the Higgs field, scientists see a similar pattern in something immeasurably huge. It is all highly structured and amazing.
How does all this knowledge impact the psyche of the scientific community that, not too long ago, thought a flat Earth was the center of the universe? “I find it remarkable,” said Leitch. “In all that vastness that we could exist at all and look out and make any kind of sense is a beautiful thing. It’s not frightening, it’s lovely.”
It shouldn’t make man feel diminished, Leitch said. “That we have evolved from the simplest of life forms to something that can comprehend the universe is remarkable. It’s magnificent. It doesn’t take a genius, just observation and following logical thinking to its conclusion. That’s not a small thing, but anybody is capable of it.”