The Real Science of the God Particle in Netflix’s ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’


Even if you’re not a particle physics buff, you may have noticed that the plot of Netflix’s surprise Superbowl Sunday release, The Cloverfield Paradox, relies heavily on a huge physics discovery that was in the news a few years ago: the Higgs Boson particle.

The Cloverfield Paradox

Also known as the “God particle” — which happened to be the working title of the new J.J. Abrams film — the Higgs Boson was first observed directly by scientists in 2012.

Gratuitous spoilers for The Cloverfield Paradox ahead.

In the midst of an energy crisis in the year 2028, scientists are struggling to use a massive space-based particle accelerator to help efficiently produce energy. When they finally get it to accelerate particles, they suddenly find themselves on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth. Chaos ensues: Worms explode out of a guy. Someone’s arm rematerializes on the other side of the ship with a mind of its own. Standard body horror nonsense.

Long story short, we’re led to believe that this botched experiment is what brought monsters to Earth in the first Cloverfield film — which, given the crazy science that goes on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), is not totally absurd.

Cloverfield Paradox Monster
In ‘The Cloverfield Paradox,’ we’re led to believe that a particle accelerator experiment gone wrong in 2028 messed up the multiverse and caused a monster attack in 2008.

Any good science fiction story has some basis in reality, and it’s clear that The Cloverfield Paradox drew heavily on conspiracy theories that sprung up around CERN and its efforts to find direct evidence of the Higgs-Boson particle using a 27-kilometer circumference accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider.

 The particle’s discovery was a big deal because it was the only one out of 17 particles predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics that had never been observed. The Higgs Boson is partly responsible for the forces between objects, giving them mass.

But it wasn’t the particle itself that conspiracy theorists and skeptics worried about. It’s the way physicists had to observe it.

Doing so involved building the LHC, an extraordinarily large real-life physics experiment that housed two side-by-side high-energy particle beams traveling in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. The hope was that accelerated protons or lead ions in the beam would collide, throwing off a bunch of extremely rare, short-lived particles, one of which might be the Higgs Boson. In 2012, scientists finally observed it, calling it the “God particle” because “Goddamn particle” — as in “so Goddamn hard to find” — was considered too rude to print.

Critics and skeptics argued that colliding particles at close to the speed of light increased the potential to accidentally create micro black holes and possibly even larger black holes, leading to wild speculation like that in Cloverfield Paradox.

cloverfield paradox
Ah yes, the elusive Hands Bosarm particle.

This has never happened in real life, of course, and there’s also strong evidence that it couldn’t happen. Check out this excerpt from an interaction between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and science skeptic Anthony Liversidge that Gizmodo reported on in 2011:

NDT: To catch everybody up on this, there’s a concern that if you make a pocket of energy that high, it might create a black hole that would then consume the Earth. So I don’t know what papers your fellow read, but there’s a simple calculation you can do. Earth is actually bombarded by high energy particles that we call cosmic rays, from the depths of space moving at a fraction of the speed of light, energies that far exceed those in the particle accelerator. So it seems to me that if making a pocket of high energy would put Earth at risk of black holes, then we and every other physical object in the universe would have become a black hole eons ago because these cosmic rays are scattered across the universe are hitting every object that’s out there. Whatever your friend’s concerns are were unfounded.

Liversidge may be on the fringe with his argument, but he isn’t alone. As Inverse previously reported, Vanderbilt University physicist Tom Weiler, Ph.D., has hypothesized that a particle created alongside the Higgs Boson, called the Higgs singlet, could travel through time through an as-yet-undiscovered fifth dimension. If Weiler’s hypothesis is correct, then it seems possible that interdimensional travel, as depicted in Cloverfield Paradox, could be possible, though his model really only accounts for the Higgs singlet particle’s ability to time travel.

'The Cloverfield Paradox' is forever the most important Cloverfield.
In ‘The Cloverfield Paradox,’ a particle accelerator plays a central role.

The reason the Cloverfield Paradox scientists were trying to fire up a particle accelerator in space is just as speculative. While particle accelerators take a massive amount of energy to accelerate their beams to near light speed, some physicists argue that under certain conditions, a particle accelerator could actually produce energy. Using superconductors, they argued, it would be possible for a particle accelerator to actually produce plutonium that could be used in nuclear reactors. So in a sense, the science of the movie is kind of based on maybe possibly real science.

That being said, this space horror film takes extreme liberties, even where it’s based on real science. Even on the extreme off-chance that any of the hypotheses outlined in this article turned out to be true, the tiny potential side effects of particle accelerators are nothing like what we see in The Cloverfield Paradox.

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Will the ‘God particle’ destroy the world?


World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously.

Basically, we would be here one minute and gone the next.

A proton-proton collision produced in the Large Hadron Collider shows characteristics in line with the decay of a Higgs boson particle.

Don’t you love physics? When we speculate about catastrophes, we don’t mess around.

The physics underlying this speculation is related to the Higgs particle, whose discovery was announced July 4, 2012, at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, in Geneva, Switzerland.

A leading physicist dubbed it the “God particle” — a name I wish would disappear, as the particle and the laws of physics tell us nothing whatsoever about God, and God, if she exists, has not opined about the Higgs particle.

So, the simplified argument goes like something like this — the Higgs particle pervades space roughly uniformly, with a relatively high mass — about 126 times that of the proton (a basic building block of atoms). Theoretical physicists noted even before the Higgs discovery that its relatively high mass would mean lower energy states exist. Just as gravity makes a ball roll downhill, to the lowest point, so the universe (or any system) tends toward its lowest energy state. If the present universe could one day transition to that lower energy state, then it is unstable now and the transition to a new state would destroy all the particles that exist today.

This would happen spontaneously at one point in space and time and then expand throughout the universe at the speed of light. There would be no warning, because the fastest a warning signal could travel is also at the speed of light, so the disaster and the warning would arrive at the same time.

We know spontaneous events do happen. The universe began in a rapid expansion called inflation that lasted only a tiny fraction of a second. We owe our existence to that sudden event.

Spontaneous change is something you might have seen in chemistry class. Super-cooled water will rapidly crystallize to ice if you drop a snowflake into it, just as a salt crystal will grow when added to a supersaturated salt solution.

Back to the universe. Whether the existence of Higgs boson means we’re doomed depends on the mass of another fundamental particle, the top quark. It’s the combination of the Higgs and top quark masses that determine whether our universe is stable.

Experiments like those at the Large Hadron Collider allow us to measure these masses. But you don’t need to hold your breath waiting for the answer. The good news is that such an event is very unlikely and should not occur until the universe is many times its present age.

Probability is the key. Many bad things are possible A large asteroid destroying the Earth. Getting hit by a bus. Having space time gobbled up by instability in the Higgs field. (For an engaging discussion of the many ways humans can be done in by the cosmos, see the marvelous “Death from the Skies!” by Bad Astronomer Phil Plait.)

Are they likely? Humans have to prioritize by considering both outcome (death or destruction) and probability.

Rare events like the collision of a massive asteroid with the Earth could destroy life as we know it and perhaps the planet itself. However, the chances of a sufficiently massive asteroid intersecting the Earth in the vast emptiness of space is pretty low. Collisions with much less massive asteroids are much more likely but much less destructive.

So don’t lose any sleep over possible danger from the Higgs boson, even if the most famous physicist in the world likes to speculate about it. You’re far more likely to be hit by lightning than taken out by the Higgs boson.

A QUANTUM LEAP.


The discovery of the puts our understanding of nature on a new firm footing

Who would have believed it? Every now and then theoretical speculation anticipates experimental observation in physics. It doesn’t happen often, in spite of the romantic notion of theorists sitting in their rooms alone at night thinking great thoughts. Nature usually surprises us. But today, two separate experiments at the Large Hadron Collider of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva reported convincing evidence for the long sought-after “Higgs” particle, first proposed to exist almost 50 years ago and at the heart of the “standard model” of elementary particle physics—the theoretical formalism that describes three of the four known forces in nature, and which to date agrees with every experimental observation done to date.

The LHC is the most complex (and largest) machine that humans have ever built, requiring thousands of physicists from dozens of countries, working full time for a decade to build and operate. And even with 26 kilometers of tunnel, accelerating two streams of protons in opposite directions at more than 99.9999 percent the speed of light and smashing them together in spectacular collisions billions of times each second, producing hundreds of particles in each collision; two detectors the size of office buildings to measure the particles; and a bank of more than 3,000 computers analyzing the events in real time in order to search for something interesting, the Higgs particle itself never directly appears.

Like the proverbial Cheshire cat, the Higgs instead leaves only a smile, by which I mean it decays into other particles that can be directly observed. After a lot of work and computer time, one can follow all the observed particles backward and determine the mass and other properties of the invisible Higgs candidates.

I say candidates, because so far each of the two major LHC experimental collaborations has claimed to discover a new particle with properties consistent with the other, and consistent with the general predictions of the standard model, which suggests that the Higgs particle should be produced at a rate comparable to the rate observed and should decay into the specific combinations of known elementary particles that are observed. They are being very conservative. One can in fact quantify the likelihood that the observations are mistaken and that the events are actually background noise mimicking a real signal. Each experiment quotes a likelihood of very close to “5 sigma,” meaning the likelihood that the events were produced by chance is less than one in 3.5 million. Yet in spite of this, the only claim that has been made so far is that the new particle is real and “Higgs-like.”  The existing data set is still too small to statistically determine with precise accuracy that the data is consistent with standard model.

This cautious approach is actually a good thing, because it leaves open the possibility that the particle being observed is not exactly the simple Higgs particle of the standard model. Instead, it may point the way toward understanding whatever new physics underlies the standard model—and perhaps explain outstanding mysteries from the question of why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter, to whether our universe is unique.

The idea of the Higgs particle was proposed nearly 50 years ago. (Incidentally, it has never been called the “God particle” by the physics community. That moniker has been picked up by the media, and I hope it goes away.) It was discussed almost as a curiosity, to get around some inconsistencies between predictions and theory at the time in particle physics, that if an otherwise invisible background field exists permeating empty space throughout the universe, then elementary particles can interact with this field. Even if they initially have no mass, they will encounter resistance to their motion through their interactions with this field, and they will slow down. They will then act like they have mass. It is like trying to push your car off the road if it has run out of gas. You and a friend can roll it along as long as it is on the road, but once it goes off and the wheels encounter mud, you and a whole gang of friends who may have been sitting in the back seat cannot get it moving. The car acts heavier.

Within a few years, it had been recognized that this phenomenon could not only explain why elementary particles like the particles that make up our bodies have the masses they do, but it could also illuminate why two of the four known forces in nature, electromagnetism and the so-called “weak” force (responsible for the processes that power the sun), which on the surface appear very different at the scales we measure, are actually at a fundamental scale merely different manifestations of a single force, now called the “electro-weak” force.

All of the predictions based on these ideas have turned out to be in accord with experiment. But there was one major thing missing: What about the invisible field? How could we tell if it really exists? It turns out that in particle physics, for every field in nature, like the electromagnetic field, there must exist an elementary particle that can be produced if one has sufficient energy to create it. So, the background field, known as a Higgs field, must be associated with a Higgs particle.

In the 1990s in the United States, a gigantic machine called the Superconducting Super Collider was being built (involving the largest tunnel ever dug—some 60 miles in circumference) to search for the Higgs—and the origin of mass. But Congress, in its infinite wisdom (Congress seems to have gotten no wiser since), decided that the country couldn’t afford the $5 billion to $10 billion that had already been approved by three different presidents. Back then, $5 billion was a lot of money! So, the LHC was constructed in Geneva by a group of European countries, and the rest is history, or will be.

The discovery announced today in Geneva represents a quantum leap (literally) in our understanding of nature at its fundamental scale, and the culmination of a half-century of dedicated work by tens of thousands of scientists using technology that has been invented for the task, and it should be celebrated on these accounts alone.

But I find it particularly exciting for two reasons—one scientific, the other more personal. First, the standard model, as remarkably successful as it has been, leaves open more questions than it answers. What causes the Higgs field to exist throughout space today? Are there other forces that dynamically determine its configuration? Why doesn’t the same phenomenon that causes the Higgs particle to exist at the mass it does cause gravity and the other forces in nature to behave similarly? Over the past 40 years or so, a host of theoretical speculations have been developed to answer these questions. But like those who are sensorially deprived, we may just be hallucinating. The cold water of experiment may now wash away many of our wrong ideas and, perhaps more importantly, could point us in the right direction. In the process I expect what we will discover about the universe may currently be beyond our wildest dreams.

More than this, however, the Higgs field implies that otherwise seemingly empty space is much richer and weirder than we could have imagined even a century ago, and in fact that we cannot understand our own existence without understanding “emptiness” better. Readers of mine will know that as a physicist, I have been particularly interested in “nothing” in all of its forms and its relation to something—namely us. The discovery of the Higgs says that “nothing” is getting ever more interesting.

Source: Slate.com