Higgs Boson, The So-Called 'God Particle': What's Really At Stake?

01/05/2012 10:22 am ET

With all the media coverage of CERN's search for the Higgs Boson—sometimes called the 'God Particle'—it's hard to know what's really at stake. Are we about to find 'God?' Will we be able to control gravity now? Was Einstein wrong? The Higgs, which many scientists believe is responsible for mass in the universe, is on the verge of being discovered or else ruled out; both of these results would be big physics news, but what's at stake for the rest of us? We've put tried to answer three of the most common questions about the Higgs and explain what's truly exciting and what's just bunk.

Should the Higgs boson really be called the 'God Particle?'
No. Although either confirming or denying the Higgs' existence would be answer the fundamental question of where mass comes from, it wouldn't be the holy grail of physics. As science writer John Horgan commented, "If the Higgs is the 'God Particle,' what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?"

What can the Higgs do for me?
This is a bit like asking your mother what she can do for you; it's not so much what she can do as what she's already done. The Higgs, if it exists, gave substance to you and every object you've ever touched—and, more impressively, every object you haven't. Direct applications, though, are "a few thousand years down the line," according to Kings College London Physicist Dr. Malcolm Fairbairn.

Science writer Kelly Oakes gave another reasonable answer to this question, writing:

"From conception through to the first collisions and beyond, particle accelerators spark many technological advancements that can be applied to fields as wide ranging as medicine, sustainable energy development and security. These advances would never have been made if we were not searching for as yet undiscovered particles like the Higgs."

So why should I be excited about it if we can't use it?
Depends what you mean by 'use it.' More than an end unto itself, the Higgs represents a sort of branching point for the future of physics. If it turns out to exist, scientists will have their work cut out for them trying to adapt the Standard Model to the larger goal, a 'theory of everything.'

It would indicate that string theory, not yet observable in the traditional sense, is heading in the right direction. University of Michigan Physicist Gordon Kane commented that the research surrounding the Higgs points to other extensions in our science that ask "not only how the world works but why it works that way. The Higgs boson is important because it is the transition to why."

If, on the other hand, the Higgs turns out not to exist, we'll have more mixed feelings. It's defeat in a sense—all the time lost working with a faulty Standard Model—but it's also exciting if a stranger and deeper theory might replace it.

If the Higgs doesn't exist, it will also be, for some, a relief. A resounding 'No' from the data would be easier to swallow, after all, than another couple of decades of expensive and time-consuming research on something that would turn out to be wrong anyway. If the Higgs doesn't exist, it will be back to the drawing board on science that's dominated for decades, so you can expect to see a range of "Higgsless" models that may contain even more novel mechanisms.

If the Higgs doesn't exist, in other words, you'll probably have to learn even more about physics just to keep up with all the articles that come out. When that happens, check back at HuffPost Science, and we'll do our best to explain everything.

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