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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Particle physicists might seem like a dry bunch, but they have their fun. Why else would there be such a thing as a “strange quark”? When it comes to the fundamental nuclear forces, though, they don’t mess around: the strongest force in nature is known simply as the “strong force,” and it’s the force that literally holds existence together.
Zoom In On The Elementary Particles
To find out what the strong force is, you need to have a basic understanding of what physicists call the elementary particles. Let’s start with an atom—helium, for example. A helium atom has two electrons zipping around a nucleus made up of two neutrons and two protons. For most high-school chemistry classes, that’s where the tiny particles end. But you can zoom even further into the atom: those protons and neutrons are a class of particle called hadrons (à la the Large Hadron Collider!), which are made up of even smaller particles called quarks. Quarks are what’s known as an elementary particle, since they can’t be split up any further. They’re as small as things get. There are two types of elementary particles; the other is the lepton. Quarks and leptons each have six “flavors”, and each of those have an antimatter version. (The electrons in our helium atom are a flavor of lepton, so we’re as zoomed in on them as is possible.) Heady stuff! Check out the diagram below if you’re getting lost.
Forces Of Nature
Following so far? There are four more parts to this puzzle we call the Standard Model, which is the theory of all theories when it comes to particle physics. Those parts are the fundamental forces. Two are probably familiar: gravity is the force between two particles that have mass, and electromagnetism is the force between two particles that have a charge. The two others are known as nuclear forces, and they’re less familiar because they only happen on the atomic scale. Those ones are known as the weak force and the strong force. The weak force operates between electrons and neutrinos (another kind of lepton), but of course, it’s the strong force we’re here to talk about.
The strong force is what binds quarks together to form hadrons like protons and neutrons. Physicists first conceived of this force’s existence to explain why an atom’s nucleus can have more than one positively charged proton and still stay together—if you’ve ever played with magnets, you know that a positive charge will always repel another positive charge. Eventually, they figured out that the strong force not only holds protons together in the nucleus, but it also holds quarks together in the protons themselves. The force actually comes from a type of force-carrier particle called a boson. (Surely you remember the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson?) The particular boson that exerts this powerful force is called a “gluon”, since it “glues” the nucleus together (we told you that physicists were a fun bunch).
Here’s what makes the strong force so fascinating: unlike an electromagnetic force, which decreases as you pull the two charged particles apart (think of magnets again!), the strong force actually gets stronger the further apart the particles go. It gets so strong that it limits how far two quarks can separate. Once they hit that limit, that’s when the magic happens: the huge amount of energy it took for them to separate is converted to mass, following Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2. That’s right—the strongest force in the universe is strong enough to turn energy into matter, the thing that makes up existence as you know it. We learned some particle physics, everyone. Who needs a snack?
Watch And Learn: Videos About Particle Physics To Make You Sound Smart
Before the elusive particle could be discovered—a smashing success—it had to be imagined
A famous story in the annals of physics tells of a 5-year-old Albert Einstein, sick in bed, receiving a toy compass from his father. The boy was both puzzled and mesmerized by the invisible forces at work, redirecting the compass needle to point north whenever its resting position was disturbed. That experience, Einstein would later say, convinced him that there was a deep hidden order to nature, and impelled him to spend his life trying to reveal it.
Although the story is more than a century old, the conundrum young Einstein encountered resonates with a key theme in contemporary physics, one that’s essential to the most important experimental achievement in the field of the last 50 years: the discovery, a year ago this July, of the Higgs boson.
Let me explain.
Science in general, and physics in particular, seek patterns. Stretch a spring twice as far, and feel twice the resistance. A pattern. Increase the volume an object occupies while keeping its mass fixed, and the higher it floats in water. A pattern. By carefully observing patterns, researchers uncover physical laws that can be expressed in the language of mathematical equations.
A clear pattern is also evident in the case of a compass: Move it and the needle points north again. I can imagine a young Einstein thinking there must be a general law stipulating that suspended metallic needles are pushed north. But no such law exists. When there is a magnetic field in a region, certain metallic objects experience a force that aligns them along the field’s direction, whatever that direction happens to be. And Earth’s magnetic field happens to point north.
The example is simple but the lesson profound. Nature’s patterns sometimes reflect two intertwined features: fundamental physical laws and environmental influences. It’s nature’s version of nature versus nurture. In the case of a compass, disentangling the two is not difficult. By manipulating it with a magnet, you readily conclude the magnet’s orientation determines the needle’s direction. But there can be other situations where environmental influences are so pervasive, and so beyond our ability to manipulate, it would be far more challenging to recognize their influence.
Physicists tell a parable about fish investigating the laws of physics but so habituated to their watery world they fail to consider its influence. The fish struggle mightily to explain the gentle swaying of plants as well as their own locomotion. The laws they ultimately find are complex and unwieldy. Then, one brilliant fish has a breakthrough. Maybe the complexity reflects simple fundamental laws acting themselves out in a complex environment—one that’s filled with a viscous, incompressible and pervasive fluid: the ocean. At first, the insightful fish is ignored, even ridiculed. But slowly, the others, too, realize that their environment, its familiarity notwithstanding, has a significant impact on everything they observe.
Does the parable cut closer to home than we might have thought? Might there be other, subtle yet pervasive features of the environment that, so far, we’ve failed to properly fold into our understanding? The discovery of the Higgs particle by the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva has convinced physicists that the answer is a resounding yes.
Nearly a half-century ago, Peter Higgs and a handful of other physicists were trying to understand the origin of a basic physical feature: mass. You can think of mass as an object’s heft or, a little more precisely, as the resistance it offers to having its motion changed. Push on a freight train (or a feather) to increase its speed, and the resistance you feel reflects its mass. At a microscopic level, the freight train’s mass comes from its constituent molecules and atoms, which are themselves built from fundamental particles, electrons and quarks. But where do the masses of these and other fundamental particles come from?
When physicists in the 1960s modeled the behavior of these particles using equations rooted in quantum physics, they encountered a puzzle. If they imagined that the particles were all massless, then each term in the equations clicked into a perfectly symmetric pattern, like the tips of a perfect snowflake. And this symmetry was not just mathematically elegant. It explained patterns evident in the experimental data. But—and here’s the puzzle—physicists knew that the particles did have mass, and when they modified the equations to account for this fact, the mathematical harmony was spoiled. The equations became complex and unwieldy and, worse still, inconsistent.
What to do? Here’s the idea put forward by Higgs. Don’t shove the particles’ masses down the throat of the beautiful equations. Instead, keep the equations pristine and symmetric, but consider them operating within a peculiar environment. Imagine that all of space is uniformly filled with an invisible substance—now called the Higgs field—that exerts a drag force on particles when they accelerate through it. Push on a fundamental particle in an effort to increase its speed and, according to Higgs, you would feel this drag force as a resistance. Justifiably, you would interpret the resistance as the particle’s mass. For a mental toehold, think of a ping-pong ball submerged in water. When you push on the ping-pong ball, it will feel much more massive than it does outside of water. Its interaction with the watery environment has the effect of endowing it with mass. So with particles submerged in the Higgs field.
In 1964, Higgs submitted a paper to a prominent physics journal in which he formulated this idea mathematically. The paper was rejected. Not because it contained a technical error, but because the premise of an invisible something permeating space, interacting with particles to provide their mass, well, it all just seemed like heaps of overwrought speculation. The editors of the journal deemed it “of no obvious relevance to physics.”
But Higgs persevered (and his revised paper appeared later that year in another journal), and physicists who took the time to study the proposal gradually realized that his idea was a stroke of genius, one that allowed them to have their cake and eat it too. In Higgs’ scheme, the fundamental equations can retain their pristine form because the dirty work of providing the particles’ masses is relegated to the environment.
While I wasn’t around to witness the initial rejection of Higgs’ proposal in 1964 (well, I was around, but only barely), I can attest that by the mid-1980s, the assessment had changed. The physics community had, for the most part, fully bought into the idea that there was a Higgs field permeating space. In fact, in a graduate course I took that covered what’s known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics (the quantum equations physicists have assembled to describe the particles of matter and the dominant forces by which they influence each other), the professor presented the Higgs field with such certainty that for a long while I had no idea it had yet to be established experimentally. On occasion, that happens in physics. Mathematical equations can sometimes tell such a convincing tale, they can seemingly radiate reality so strongly, that they become entrenched in the vernacular of working physicists, even before there’s data to confirm them.
But it’s only with data that a link to reality can be forged. How can we test for the Higgs field? This is where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) comes in. Winding its way hundreds of yards under Geneva, Switzerland, crossing the French border and back again, the LHC is a nearly 17-mile-long circular tunnel that serves as a racetrack for smashing together particles of matter. The LHC is surrounded by about 9,000 superconducting magnets, and is home to streaming hordes of protons, cycling around the tunnel in both directions, which the magnets accelerate to just shy of the speed of light. At such speeds, the protons whip around the tunnel about 11,000 times each second, and when directed by the magnets, engage in millions of collisions in the blink of an eye. The collisions, in turn, produce fireworks-like sprays of particles, which mammoth detectors capture and record.
One of the main motivations for the LHC, which cost on the order of $10 billion and involves thousands of scientists from dozens of countries, was to search for evidence for the Higgs field. The math showed that if the idea is right, if we are really immersed in an ocean of Higgs field, then the violent particle collisions should be able to jiggle the field, much as two colliding submarines would jiggle the water around them. And every so often, the jiggling should be just right to flick off a speck of the field—a tiny droplet of the Higgs ocean—which would appear as the long-sought Higgs particle.
The calculations also showed that the Higgs particle would be unstable, disintegrating into other particles in a minuscule fraction of a second. Within the maelstrom of colliding particles and billowing clouds of particulate debris, scientists armed with powerful computers would search for the Higgs’ fingerprint—a pattern of decay products dictated by the equations.
In the early morning hours of July 4, 2012, I gathered with about 20 other stalwarts in a conference room at the Aspen Center for Physics to view the live-stream of a press conference at the Large Hadron Collider facilities in Geneva. About six months earlier, two independent teams of researchers charged with gathering and analyzing the LHC data had announced a strong indication that the Higgs particle had been found. The rumor now flying around the physics community was that the teams finally had sufficient evidence to stake a definitive claim. Coupled with the fact that Peter Higgs himself had been asked to make the trip to Geneva, there was ample motivation to stay up past 3 a.m. to hear the announcement live.
And as the world came to quickly learn, the evidence that the Higgs particle had been detected was strong enough to cross the threshold of discovery. With the Higgs particle now officially found, the audience in Geneva broke out into wild applause, as did our little group in Aspen, and no doubt dozens of similar gatherings around the globe. Peter Higgs wiped away a tear.
With a year of hindsight, and additional data that has only served to make the case for the Higgs stronger, here’s how I would summarize the discovery’s most important implications.
First, we’ve long known that there are invisible inhabitants in space. Radio and television waves. The Earth’s magnetic field. Gravitational fields. But none of these is permanent. None is unchanging. None is uniformly present throughout the universe. In this regard, the Higgs field is fundamentally different. We believe its value is the same on Earth as near Saturn, in the Orion Nebulae, throughout the Andromeda Galaxy and everywhere else. As far as we can tell, the Higgs field is indelibly imprinted on the spatial fabric.
Second, the Higgs particle represents a new form of matter, which had been widely anticipated for decades but had never been seen. Early in the 20th century, physicists realized that particles, in addition to their mass and electric charge, have a third defining feature: their spin. But unlike a child’s top, a particle’s spin is an intrinsic feature that doesn’t change; it doesn’t speed up or slow down over time. Electrons and quarks all have the same spin value, while the spin of photons—particles of light—is twice that of electrons and quarks. The equations describing the Higgs particle showed that—unlike any other fundamental particle species—it should have no spin at all. Data from the Large Hadron Collider have now confirmed this.
Establishing the existence of a new form of matter is a rare achievement, but the result has resonance in another field: cosmology, the scientific study of how the entire universe began and developed into the form we now witness. For many years, cosmologists studying the Big Bang theory were stymied. They had pieced together a robust description of how the universe evolved from a split second after the beginning, but they were unable to give any insight into what drove space to start expanding in the first place. What force could have exerted such a powerful outward push? For all its success, the Big Bang theory left out the bang.
In the 1980s, a possible solution was discovered, one that rings a loud Higgsian bell. If a region of space is uniformly suffused with a field whose particulate constituents are spinless, then Einstein’s theory of gravity (the general theory of relativity) reveals that a powerful repulsive force can be generated—a bang, and a big one at that. Calculations showed that it was difficult to realize this idea with the Higgs field itself; the double duty of providing particle masses and fueling the bang proves a substantial burden. But insightful scientists realized that by positing a second “Higgs-like” field (possessing the same vanishing spin, but different mass and interactions), they could split the burden—one field for mass and the other for the repulsive push—and offer a compelling explanation of the bang. Because of this, for more than 30 years, theoretical physicists have been vigorously exploring cosmological theories in which such Higgs-like fields play an essential part. Thousands of journal articles have been written developing these ideas, and billions of dollars have been spent on deep space observations seeking—and finding—indirect evidence that these theories accurately describe our universe. The LHC’s confirmation that at least one such field actually exists thus puts a generation of cosmological theorizing on a far firmer foundation.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the discovery of the Higgs particle is an astonishing triumph of mathematics’ power to reveal the workings of the universe. It’s a story that’s been recapitulated in physics numerous times, but each new example thrills just the same. The possibility of black holes emerged from the mathematical analyses of German physicist Karl Schwarzchild; subsequent observations proved that black holes are real. Big Bang cosmology emerged from the mathematical analyses of Alexander Friedmann and also Georges Lemaître; subsequent observations proved this insight correct as well. The concept of anti-matter first emerged from the mathematical analyses of quantum physicist Paul Dirac; subsequent experiments showed that this idea, too, is right. These examples give a feel for what the great mathematical physicist Eugene Wigner meant when he spoke of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the physical universe.” The Higgs field emerged from mathematical studies seeking a mechanism to endow particles with mass. And once again the math has come through with flying colors.
As a theoretical physicist myself, one of many dedicated to finding what Einstein called the “unified theory”—the deeply hidden connections between all of nature’s forces and matter that Einstein dreamed of, long after being hooked on physics by the mysterious workings of the compass—the discovery of the Higgs is especially gratifying. Our work is driven by mathematics, and has so far not made contact with experimental data. We are anxiously awaiting 2015 when an upgraded and yet more powerful LHC will be switched back on, as there’s a fighting chance that the new data will provide evidence that our theories are heading in the right direction. Major milestones would include the discovery of a class of hitherto unseen particles (called “supersymmetric” particles) that our equations predict, or hints of the wild possibility of spatial dimensions beyond the three we all experience. More exciting still would be the discovery of something completely unanticipated, sending us all scurrying back to our blackboards.
Many of us have been trying to scale these mathematical mountains for 30 years, some even longer. At times we’ve felt the unified theory was just beyond our fingertips, while at other times we’re truly groping in the dark. It is a great boost for our generation to witness the confirmation of the Higgs, to witness four-decade-old mathematical insights realized as pops and crackles in the LHC detectors. It reminds us to take the words of Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg to heart: “Our mistake is not that we take our theories too seriously, but we do not take them seriously enough. It is always hard to realize that these numbers and equations we play with at our desks have something to do with the real world.” Sometimes, those numbers and equations have an uncanny, almost eerie ability to illuminate otherwise dark corners of reality. When they do, we get that much closer to grasping our place in the cosmos.
Scientists may have found signs that phonons, the very small packets of energy that make up sound waves, were leaking out of sonic black holes, just as Hawking’s equations predicted.
SURVIVING A BLACK HOLE
Some 42 years ago, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking proposed that not everything that comes in contact with a black hole succumbs to its unfathomable nothingness. Tiny particles of light (photons) are sometimes ejected back out, robbing the black hole of an infinitesimal amount of energy, and this gradual loss of mass over time means every black hole eventually evaporates out of existence.
Known as Hawking radiation, these escaping particles help us make sense of one of the greatest enigmas in the known Universe, but after more than four decades, no one’s been able to actually prove they exist, and Hawking’s proposal remained firmly in hypothesis territory.
But all that could be about to change, with two independent groups of researchers reporting that they’ve found evidence to back up Hawking’s claims, and it could see one of the greatest living physicists finally win a Nobel Prize.
UNDERSTANDING THE THEORY
Let’s go back to 1974, when all of this began. Hawking had gotten into an argument with Princeton University graduate student, Jacob Bekenstein, who suggested in his PhD thesis that a black hole’s entropy – the ‘disorder’ of a system, related to its volume, energy, pressure, and temperature – was proportional to the area of its event horizon.
Hawking investigated the claims, and soon enough, realised that he had been proven wrong. “[D]r Hawking did a prodigious calculation including quantum theory, the strange rules that govern the subatomic world, and was shocked to find particles coming away from the black hole, indicating that it was not so black after all,” Overbye writes.
Hawking proposed that the Universe is filled with ‘virtual particles’ that, according to what we know about how quantum mechanics works, blink in and out of existence and annihilate each other as soon as they come in contact – except if they happen to appear on either side of a black hole’s event horizon. Basically, one particle gets swallowed up by the black hole, and the otherradiates away into space.
The existence of Hawking radiation has answered a lot of questions about how black holes actually work, but in the process, raised a bunch of problems that physicists are still trying to reconcile.
“No result in theoretical physics has been more fundamental or influential than his discovery that black holes have entropy proportional to their surface area,”says Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada.
While Bekenstein received the Wolf Prize in 2012 and the American Physical Society’s Einstein prize in 2015 for his work, which The New York Times says are often precursors to the Nobel Prize, neither scientist has been awarded the most prestigious prize in science for the discovery. Bekenstein passed away last year, but Hawking is now closer than ever to seeing his hypothesis proven.
The problem? Remember when I said the escaping photons were stealing an infinitesimal amount of energy from a black hole every time they escaped? Well, unfortunately for Hawking, this radiation is so delicate, it’s practically impossible to detect it from thousands of light-years away.
A WAY FORWARD?
But physicist Jeff Steinhauer from Technion University in Haifa, Israel, thinks he’s come up with a solution – if we can’t detect Hawking radiation in actual black holes thousands of light-years away from our best instruments, why not bring the black holes to our best instruments?
As Oliver Moody reports for The Times, Steinhauer has managed to created a lab-sized ‘black hole’ made from sound, and when he kicked it into gear, he witnessed particles steal energy from its fringes.
Reporting his experiment in a paper posted to the physics pre-press website,arXiv.org, Steinhauer says he cooled helium to just above absolute zero, then churned it up so fast, it formed a ‘barrier’ through which sound should not be able to pass.
“Steinhauer said he had found signs that phonons, the very small packets of energy that make up sound waves, were leaking out of his sonic black hole just as Hawking’s equations predict they should,” Moody reports.
To be clear, the results of this experiment have not yet been peer-reviewed – that’s the point of putting everything up for the public to see on arXiv.org. They’re now being mulled over by physicists around the world, and they’re already proving controversial, but worthy of further investigation.
“The experiments are beautiful,” physicist Silke Weinfurtner from the University of Nottingham in the UK, who is running her own Earth-based experiments to try and detect Hawking radiation, told The Telegraph. “Jeff has done an amazing job, but some of the claims he makes are open to debate. This is worth discussing.”
Meanwhile, a paper published in Physical Review Letters last month has found another way to strengthen the case for Hawking radiation. Physicists Chris Adami and Kamil Bradler from the University of Ottawa describe a new technique that allows them to follow a black hole’s life over time.
That’s exciting stuff, because it means that whatever information or matter that passes over the event horizon doesn’t ‘disappear’ but is slowly leaking back out during the later stages of the black hole’s evaporation.
“To perform this calculation, we had to guess how a black hole interacts with the Hawking radiation field that surrounds it,” Adami said in a press release. “This is because there currently is no theory of quantum gravity that could suggest such an interaction. However, it appears we made a well-educated guess because our model is equivalent to Hawking’s theory in the limit of fixed, unchanging black holes.”
Both results will now need to be confirmed, but they suggest that we’re inching closer to figuring out a solution for how we can confirm or disprove the existence of Hawking radiation, and that’s good news for its namesake.
As Moody points out, Peter Higgs, who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, had to wait 49 years for his Nobel prize, we’ll have to wait and see if Hawking ends up with his own.
One of the physicists who helped find the Higgs boson, Elina Berglund, has spent the past three years working on something completely different – a fertility app that tells women when they’re fertile or not.
Best of all, the app doesn’t have any side effects, and just requires women to input their temperature daily to map their fertility throughout the month.
Back in 2012, Berglund was working at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider experiment to find the famous Higgs boson. But after the discovery of the particle, she felt it was time to work on something completely different.
“I wanted to give my body a break from the pill,” she told Daniela Walker fromWired, “but I couldn’t find any good forms of natural birth control, so I wrote an algorithm for myself.”
The resulting app is called Natural Cycles, and so far, it’s had pretty promising results.
Using a woman’s natural fertility cycle to help her avoid getting pregnant isn’t a new idea – it stems from something called the rhythm method, which is a form of contraceptive that claims to work just by having women avoid unprotected sex on fertile days each month.
In theory, that should work quite well. After all, there’s only a roughly nine-day window during which a woman can get pregnant each month. But the rhythm method is pretty unreliable, seeing as all women have slightly different cycles, and in real life, it only has a success rate of around 75 percent.
But Berglund’s algorithm is different – it uses the same advanced statistical methods she used at CERN, and is based on a woman’s daily temperature rather than simply the day of her cycle.
That’s because after ovulation, women see a spike in progesterone, which makes their bodies up to 0.45 degrees Celsius warmer.
So by entering your temperature in the app daily, and comparing the results with a broader dataset, the app lets you know when you can have unprotected sex (a green day) and when to use contraception, such as condoms (a red day).
There have been two trials so far, and the second one analysed data on more than 4,000 women aged 20 to 35 using the app.
Over the course of one year, there were 143 unplanned pregnancies in the cohort, 10 of which were conceived on green days, giving the app a 99.5 percent reliability rating. (The rest of the unplanned pregnancies were the result of women not using the app properly.)
Of course, Natural Cycles can’t protect against STIs, so it isn’t recommended for everyone. But for people who are having sex with a regular and trusted partner, the results so far suggest that it can work as well as more traditional types of birth control.
The app can also help women plan pregnancies, by taking the guesswork out of finding the best day to have sex.
But the real aim for Berglund now is to have the app classified as a contraceptive, not just a fertility monitor. “We are a natural alternative to the pill – with no side effects,” she told Walker.
Not everyone is so convinced, though. In the latest trial, more than 1,000 women dropped out and stopped using the app over the course of the year, which shows that it can be hard to maintain. And women also have to be highly motivated and organised to record their temperatures at the same time every single day.
“It’s not a clinical trial but shows real-life performance,” one of the researchers in the study, Kristina Gemzell Danielsson, from the Karolinska Intitutet in Sweden, told Wired. “True, motivation is key. For many women this is not the best method. However for motivated women it can be an alternative.”
“Natural Cycles is not recommended to those who are very young or very keen to avoid a pregnancy, since there are other more effective methods,” she added.
Those more effective methods are ones that don’t require people to remember to take a pill, put on a condom, or record their temperature daily, such as intrauterine contraception or implants.
That’s because human error can mess with things quite a lot. In fact, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) explained that when the app was used perfectly all the time, only five out of every 1,000 women would fall pregnant every year – a rate slightly better than the pill.
But for “typical use” – where the app isn’t used entirely correctly every day – it’s more likely that seven out of every 100 women would experience accidental pregnancies, which is around 93 percent efficiency.
They also reminded women that an app will never protect against diseases.
“However effective an application may be, it will not protect you against sexually transmitted infections, unlike the low-tech – but very reliable – condom,” the NHS Choices blog explains.
Still, Berglund is working on improving the reliability constantly. The app now has 100,000 users paying £6.99 per month, and in June, the company received US$6 million in funding.
She’s now hired another particle physicist from CERN to help analyse the data from the app and make it more reliable and personalised for each woman.
“It can be very scary, especially when it has to do with your body and your health,” she told Wired. “We know we are dealing with women’s lives here and we take that very seriously.”
But with women still waiting for the male contraceptive pill to be rolled out, and many experiencing negative side effects such as depression from other types of hormonal contraceptive, it’s nice to know that some of the great minds in science are working on new options for us.
Physicists are using the LHC to probe for elementary particles that may exist beyond the Standard Model. By doing so, they may discover (and may have already discovered) a “new physics” that has a real chance to resolve some of the greatest mysteries in science.
MESON, FERMIONS, LEPTONS, AND BOSONS
The Standard Model, which emerged in the 1970s, is a theoretical foundation that explains the world and matter at the very smallest levels of reality: elementary particles so minute they boggle the imagination and defy easy understanding. It has been a pretty successful description so far, but like most old foundations, it’s beginning to show signs of cracks and disrepair.
Of course, it’s not so much that the standard model is wrong; rather, there may be a deeper kind of physics, a dark sector that we haven’t been able to reach yet.
In other words, there are hints of something greater and even more fundamental shining through those cracks like glinting rays of sunshine. And a team of physicists from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN), working with the LHC particle accelerator at CERN, think they may be on the track of what that “something” is.
Briefly, the Standard Model divides matter and the forces of the universe into several categories of elementary particles. Pay attention now, reader, because this will go quickly. Bosons transmit force; photons (light) emerge from electromagnetic activity; eight species of gluon are involved in the strong nuclear force (holding atoms together); and the W+, W- and Z0 bosons oversee the weak nuclear force (responsible for radioactive decay). Matter comprises fermions, which are formed by quarks and leptons; there are six species of quarks, and six of leptons (which include electrons and neutrinos), together with 12 antiparticles for each. The Higgs boson provides mass for all, save the gluons and photons.
Got that? Good.
But here’s the problem—the Standard Model, in common with other theories explaining the universe (such as Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity), is not quite as comprehensive as we’d like it to be. It fails to explain some of the most interesting and pressing questions confronting physics.
For instance, it doesn’t account for the division of fermions into different families, or why matter achieved the upper hand over antimatter in the early universe. And if dark matter is indeed an actual form of “matter,” it is not explained by our current understanding of elementary particles. Perhaps most importantly, gravity (that most mysterious and fundamental of forces) is utterly unaccounted for by the Standard Model.
THE BEAUTY MESON
The Large Hadron Collider has turned its considerable particle-smashing heft to the task of seeking out new elementary particles beyond the Standard Model; but it’s possible they exist just outside the energy limit of the LHC. If this is the case, then the only way to discover their presence will be to discern their “shadow,” as it were—the influence they exert upon other particles at lower energies.
And one way this might work is if they cause “mesons”—unstable, short-lived combinations of a quark and antiquark—to decay in unusual and unexpected ways.
This is what the team believes it may have found. A few years back, the LHCb experiment, which probes the mysteries of matter and antimatter, detected anomalous readings in the decay of a B meson or “beauty” meson—a meson consisting of a light quark and a heavy beauty antiquark. It was necessary to rig up a more accurate method of determining the parameters by which the beauty quark decayed in order to test its deviation from the Standard Model; the Polish team devised a means to determine the parameters independently.
According to Dr. Marcin Chrzaszcz of IFJ PAN, one of the authors of the new research, “[m]y approach can be likened to determining the year when a family portrait was taken. Rather than looking at the whole picture, it is better to analyze each person individually and from that perspective try to work out the year the portrait was taken.”
By more accurately determining the degree of deviation from the Standard Model, scientists will be able to ascertain whether the anomaly really represents the influence of unknown elementary particles beyond the Model, or whether it is merely some hitherto undiscovered property which the Model does account for.
For now, physicists hypothesize that there is something called a “Z-prime” (Z’) boson, which mediates the decay of B mesons. The LHC is gearing up now for new, higher-energy collisions. Perhaps, at last, they’ll discover the new particles, and the new physics, they’ve been searching for.
The Higgs’ boson helped us understand known matter, but scientists at the High Energy Physics Group (HEP) of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg believe they have the necessary data to discover a new boson, called the Madala boson. Its discovery may help us explore more about what dark matter is and how it interacts with the universe.
DISCOVERING THE MADALA BOSON
Discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has contributed heaps to our understanding of modern physics. But the Higgs boson only explains mass that we can see, touch and smell. Known matter only makes up 4% of the Universe’s mass and energy. Scientists predict the discovery of a new boson which interacts with dark matter, which makes up 27% of our universe.
Using the same data that led to Higgs’ discovery, the bright minds at the High Energy Physics Group (HEP) of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg have come up with the Madala hypothesis, which they believe will help them discover the new Madala boson.
The Madala boson team isn’t lacking in scientific minds, as they have around 35 students and researchers to brainstorm and help understand data from the experiments. They also have the support from Wits University, such as theorists Prof. Alan Cornell and Dr. Mukesh Kumar and Prof. Elias Sideras-Haddad’s assistance in detector instrumentation.
DARK MATTER MATTERS
Man’s understanding of physics keeps on evolving. Professor Bruce Mellado, team leader of the HEP group at Wits says we are now at a point similar to when Einstein formulated relativity and to when quantum mechanics came to light. We found classic physics lacking as it failed to make sense of plenty of phenomena. When the Higgs’ boson was discovered, the Standard Model of Physics was completed, but we have still only scratched the surface. Modern physics still can’t explain other phenomena including dark matter.
The discovery of the new Madala boson puts man in a good position to learn more about our universe. Perhaps there are even more particles to be discovered aside from this new boson. The future of modern physics has never been brighter.
When Paul Glaysher was approaching the end of his master’s degree in 2012, everyone was talking about the Higgs boson. After two years of smashing protons together, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was about to bring the mysterious particle—it helps explain how the universe got its mass—out of the theoretical realm. Students who landed a spot on a LHC research team had a chance to aid the biggest discovery in modern physics.
Glaysher bit. Then, two months before he started his PhD program with the University of Edinburgh’s CERN team, the LHC’s ATLAS and CMS experiments announced they had found the Higgs boson.
“It was a bit sad,” Glaysher says. “They waited 50 years to find it, and couldn’t wait the extra two months until I was part of the party.”
The three years that followed were a champagne-fueled hangover. Further data confirmed the Higgs discovery, and then the collider shut down for a two-year upgrade that more than doubled its particle-smashing power.
This summer, the LHC’s long-awaited restart came with a new promise: the chance to spot larger particles never before created in a human-made particle accelerator. Physicists believe they might glimpse the particles that make up dark matter—the unknown substance thought to make up a quarter of the universe—or even hints of other dimensions.
But despite the chance to study exotic new particles, Glaysher finds himself three and a half years later still studying the Higgs boson for the ATLAS experiment. Instead of spending his entire life chasing a specter, he’s examining something very real.
“Discovery—as exciting as it is, as Nobel-prize-generating as it may be—it’s actually just the first step,” Glaysher says. Theorists and other researchers at the collider agree with him. They think the Higgs could find them some new physics yet.
The Higgs was, in a way, the end of the line. At the heart of particle physics is what’s known as the Standard Model: a group of 17 elementary particles and the rules for how they should interact. Up until the Higgs discovery, physicists had observed 16 of these particles—and the field was desperate for a 17th that would push the model in new directions. But the Higgs turned out to be totally ordinary. It acted just like the model said it would act, obeyed every theorized rule.
The physicists, in other words, had done too good of a job with their predictions. “With the Higgs, we thought we had touched the bottom,” says Andre David, a CMS research physicist leading the effort to characterize the boson.
But with a newly-upgraded LHC, the ATLAS researchers—along with their counterparts at CMS and theoretical physicists—think the Higgs could yet lead to new insights about the nature of the world. “It’s like you’ve pierced the bottom and there must be a new bottom,” says David. “You just have to keep digging.”
So far, the scientists have some juicy theories for the Higgs. When you’re part of the process responsible for giving the universe mass, it’s likely you’re mixed up in some other interesting business. This month marked the completion of the LHC’s first round of observing proton collisions at a higher energy, and the data collected could play into some of physics’ biggest questions.
One of physicists’ greatest hopes for the new LHC is to not upend the Standard Model with new observations, but to extend it—by finding a partner for each of its 17 particles, validating a theory called supersymmetry. The Standard Model has a good explanation for the weak force, which allows one particle to turn into another. But physicists don’t know why the weak force is able to overpower gravity. Theories that explained that weirdness called for a Higgs with a huge mass, but the boson discovered in 2012 was relatively light. Observing supersymmetric particles that are also light could account for the discrepancies.
The Higgs could play a role in another unobserved particle, too: dark matter. It’s possible that the Higgs likes to turn into dark matter, or play some other role in its behavior. The LHC’s huge detectors measure what happens after collisions by detecting the energies of the resulting particles—and if part of the energy disappears, it could be a hint that dark matter appeared.
Then there’s matter and antimatter. While physicists have documented both, they aren’t sure what happened right after the Big Bang, when the universe was still made of equal parts matter and antimatter. The two have a tendency to destroy each other and turn into pure energy when they collide. But something caused an imbalance, leading to a modern universe that has far more matter than antimatter. Physicists believe the Higgs’ interactions with itself could have played a part—so they plan to study what happens when two Higgs meet in the LHC.
Finally, physicists believe they could find even more Higgs particles. One prominent theory holds that instead of one type of Higgs boson, there are five. Some of them are much heavier than the Higgs found in 2012, which means the LHC may not have been powerful enough to create them. Until now.
The Known Unknown
Those are all tantalizing possibilities. Still, the LHC’s most intriguing results could come from seeing something that nobody predicted. The Higgs discovered in 2012 happens to have a mass that is suspiciously compatible with a huge number of particle interactions. That could be a coincidence. Or—hope beyond hope—it could lead to an underlying principle that physicists have missed until now. The end goal, as always, is to find a string that, when tugged, rings a clarion bell that draws physicists toward something new.
“It’s not guaranteed we have thought everything that can be thought of. It might just be we are not imaginative and creative enough,” David says. “We might be going in a direction where new physics could be subtle. It’s not like a new particle in your face.”
Scientists are, once again, starting the clock on a nebulous waiting period. Peter Higgs theorized the boson in 1964—and then the particle went unobserved for 50 years. CERN’s teams don’t know whether their current collider is powerful enough to provide the answers they seek, or if they will have to wait for a major energy upgrade years or even decades from now.
“We have lots of questions. We have indirect evidence that they might be answered by the experiments we’re doing,” says ATLAS researcher Elliot Lipeles. “We might come up empty, or we might find a shocking discovery literally next month.”
It’s tedious and generally unglamorous work. Glaysher’s group at the University of Edinburgh spends its days analyzing instances of the Higgs decaying into several specific types of particles. To uncover the Higgs’ secrets, it’s up to physicists to spend thousands of hours combing through the unfathomable number of particle collisions produced each day in the LHC. And if Glaysher is lucky, his team might be the one to find out physics has got the Higgs all wrong.
At the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe, faster is better. Faster means more powerful particle collisions and looking deeper into the makeup of matter. However, other researchers are proclaiming not so fast. LHC may not have discovered the Higgs Boson, the boson that imparts mass to everything, the god particle as some have called it. While the Higgs Boson discovery in 2012 culminated with the awarding in December 2013 of the Nobel Prize to Peter Higgs and François Englert, a team of researchers has raised these doubts about the Higgs Boson in their paper published in the journal Physical Review D.
The discourse is similar to what unfolded in the last year with the detection of light from the beginning of time that signified the Inflation epoch of the Universe. Researchers looking into the depths of the Universe and the inner depths of subatomic particles are searching for signals at the edge of detectability, just above the noise level and in proximity to the signals from other sources. For the BICEP2 telescope observations, its pretty much back to the drawing board but the Higgs Boson doubts are definitely challenging but needing more solid evidence. In human affairs, if the Higgs Boson was not detected by the LHC, what does one do with an awarded Nobel Prize?
The present challenge to the Higgs Boson is not new and is not just a problem of detectability and acuity of the sensors as is the case with BICEP2 data. The Planck space telescope revealed that light radiated from dust combined with the magnetic field in our Milky Way galaxy could explain the signal detected by BICEP2 that researchers proclaimed as the primordial signature of the Inflation period. The Higgs Boson particle is actually a prediction of the theory proposed by Peter Higgs and several others beginning in the early 1960s. It is a predicted particle from gauge theory developed by Higgs, Englert and others, at the heart of the Standard Model.
This recent paper is from a team of researchers from Denmark, Belgium and the United Kingdom led by Dr. Mads Toudal Frandsen. Their study entitled, “Technicolor Higgs boson in the light of LHC data” discusses how their supported theory predicts Technicolor quarks through a range of energies detectable at LHC and that one in particular is within the uncertainty level of the data point declared to be the Higgs Boson. There are variants of Technicolor Theory (TC) and the research paper compares in detail the field theory behind the Standard Model Higgs and the TC Higgs (their version of the Higgs boson). Their conclusion is that a TC Higgs is predicted by Technicolor Theory that is consistent with expected physical properties, is low mass and has an energy level – 125 GeV – indistinguishable from the resonance now considered to be the Standard Model Higgs. Theirs is a composite particle and it does not impart mass upon everything.
So you say – hold on! What is a Technicolor in jargon of particle physics? To answer this you would want to talk to a plumber from South Bronx, New York – Dr. Leonard Susskind. Though no longer a plumber, Susskind first proposed Technicolor to describe the breaking of symmetry in gauge theories that are part of the Standard Model. Susskind and other physicists from the 1970s considered it unsatisfactory that many arbitrary parameters were needed to complete the Gauge theory used in the Standard Model (involving the Higgs Scalar and Higgs Field). The parameters consequently defined the mass of elementary particles and other properties. These parameters were being assigned and not calculated and that was not acceptable to Susskind, ‘t Hooft, Veltmann and others. The solution involved the concept of Technicolor which provided a “natural” means of describing the breakdown of symmetry in the gauge theories that makeup the Standard Model.
Cross-section of the Large Hadron Collider where its detectors are placed and collisions occur. LHC is as much as 175 meters (574 ft) below ground on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland. The accelerator ring is 27 km (17 miles) in circumference. Credit: CERN
Technicolor in particle physics shares one simple thing in common with Technicolor that dominated the early color film industry – the term composite in creating color or particles.
If the theory surrounding Technicolor is correct, then there should be many techni-quark and techni-Higgs particles to be found with the LHC or a more powerful next generation accelerator; a veritable zoo of particles besides just the Higgs Boson. The theory also means that these ‘elementary’ particles are composites of smaller particles and that another force of nature would be needed to bind them. And this new paper by Belyaev, Brown, Froadi and Frandsen claims that one specific techni-quark particle has a resonance (detection point) that is within the uncertainty of measurements for the Higgs Boson. In other words, the Higgs Boson might not be “the god particle” but rather a Technicolor Quark particle comprised of smaller more fundamental particles and another force binding them.
This paper by Belyaev, Brown, Froadi and Frandsen is a clear reminder that the Standard Model is unsettled and that even the discovery of the Higgs Boson is not 100% certain. In the last year, more sensitive sensors have been integrated into CERN’s LHC which will help refute this challenge to Higgs theory – Higgs Scalar and Field, the Higgs Boson or may reveal the signatures of Technicolor particles. Better detectors may resolve the difference between the energy level of the Technicolor quark and the Higgs Boson. LHC researchers were quick to state that their work moves on beyond discovery of the Higgs Boson. Also, their work could actually disprove that they found the Higgs Boson.
Contacting the co-investigator Dr. Alexander Belyaev, the question was raised – will the recent upgrades to CERN accelerator provide the precision needed to differentiate a technie-Quark from the Higg’s particle?
“There is no guarantee of course” Dr. Belyaev responded to Universe Today, “but upgrade of LHC will definitely provide much better potential to discover other particles associated with theory of Technicolor, such as heavy Techni-mesons or Techni-baryons.”
Resolving the doubts and choosing the right additions to the Standard Model does depend on better detectors, more observations and collisions at higher energies. Presently, the LHC is down to increase collision energies from 8 TeV to 13 TeV. Among the observations at the LHC, Super-symmetry has not fared well and the observations including the Higgs Boson discovery has supported the Standard Model. The weakness of the Standard Model of particle physics is that it does not explain the gravitational force of nature whereas Super-symmetry can. The theory of Technicolor maintains strong supporters as this latest paper shows and it leaves some doubt that the Higgs Boson was actually detected. Ultimately another more powerful next-generation particle accelerator may be needed.
For Higgs and Englert, the reversal of the discovery is by no means the ruination of a life’s work or would be the dismissal of a Nobel Prize. The theoretical work of the physicists have long been recognized by previous awards. The Standard Model as, at least, a partial solution of the theory of everything is like a jig-saw puzzle. Piece by piece is how it is being developed but not without missteps. Furthermore, the pieces added to the Standard Model can be like a house of cards and require replacing a larger solution with a wholly other one. This could be the case of Higgs and Technicolor.
At times like children somewhat determined, physicists thrust a solution into the unfolding puzzle that seems to fit but ultimately has to be retracted. The present discourse does not yet warrant a retraction. Elegance and simplicity is the ultimate characteristics sought in theoretical solutions. Particle physicists also use the term Naturalness when describing the concerns with gauge theory parameters. The solutions – the pieces – of the puzzle created by Peter Higgs and François Englert have spearheaded and encouraged further work which will achieve a sounder Standard Model but few if any claim that it will emerge as the theory of everything.
Basically, we would be here one minute and gone the next.
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.