On July 4, the physics community responded with jubilation to an announcement that had been anticipated for 50 years: the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Just as half of the country was ecstatic in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected—supposedly heralding the end of “business as usual” in Washington—the Higgs breakthrough appeared to herald a new era in particle physics, one that could bring us closer to a possible unified theory describing all of the fundamental forces of nature.
Unfortunately, in both cases, reality has intervened. Obama discovered that being elected and governing a divided and partisan country are two different things. In physics, too, we are uncomfortably close to what many of us would consider the nightmare scenario. The initial buzz of the Higgs discovery has faded, and now we face a monstrous hangover: What happens next?
Briefly, the Higgs is an elementary particle predicted 50 years ago during the development of the standard model of particle physics. The standard model beautifully describes three of the four fundamental forces in nature and is one of the most remarkable theoretical constructions in the history of science. Specifically, the Higgs was predicted in order to provide a natural mechanism to explain what now appears to be an amazing cosmic accident: the fact that some particles have mass and others don’t. (For a thorough explanation, listen to my conversation with Blogging Heads’ Robert Wright.)
Before the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland was turned on, there were five possibilities for what might be revealed: 1) No Higgs and nothing else, 2) a Higgs with unexpected properties and nothing else, 3) lots of other stuff but no Higgs, 4) a Higgs and lots of other stuff, and 5) a single Higgs with the properties predicted in the standard model.