Thursday, December 15, 2011

The day they found the Higgs boson

What’s the best present you could get this Christmas? A diamond as big as the Ritz? World peace? Financial stability in the Eurozone? An XBox 360?

Well, for this writer the ultimate festive treat is a bit of unexpected good news, and this year it arrived a couple of weeks early.

“What good news?” we hear you ask. “The world is falling apart at the seams, the weather outside is frightful and the we can’t remember where we put the spare bulbs for the Christmas lights.”

Fret not, dear reader. These things are indeed bad, but there is nevertheless a light on the horizon,  a tiny crumb of good news in the stale bad news baguette.

Because a couple of days ago it was announced that our favourite particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, had at last detected the elusive “God Particle”, known to its friends as the Higgs Boson.

Or had it? The physicists who run the LHC aren’t committing themselves just yet.

“We need more data before we can reach any firm conclusions,” said top boffin Fabiola Gianotti, hedging as many scientific bets as it’s possible to hedge in one short sentence.

What it boils down to, apparently, is that they think they’ve found the place where the Higgs boson might be hiding, but they haven’t quite found the boson itself.

Which is probably rather  like finding a small piece of hay in a very large haystack when you’re looking for a minuscule needle. And may  have something to do with  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Or may not. No-one’s really sure.

Not that it matters, though. When news of the discovery hit the media, it was greeted with the sort of uncomprehending joy normally associated with royal weddings and England winning the World Cup.

The graphic artists sharpened up their pencils along with their imaginations, and produced hundreds of diagrams explaining what the Higgs Boson might look like –  if you could actually see it.

The finest example of what might be called speculative illustration was on the front page of Wednesday’s Guardian. It depicted an orange swirly thing wrapped in a light grey tube thing with a thick red line thing going through it. Plus a few speckly bits round the outside.

(That sound you hear is Piet Mondrian spinning in his grave.)

Despite all the excitement, though, the big question remains: what will the Large Hadron Collider actually do after it’s tracked down that pesky boson?

Well, one test of its powers would be to come round to Dixon Towers and sort out the trumpet-like racket that shakes the entire house every time anyone flushes the loo.

Last week’s DIY crisis with the smoke alarm (keep up at the back there) has been averted, but the grinding from the piping is a much tougher nut to crack.

And if the LHC is smart enough to detect the particle that underpins the big bang theory, then fixing our plumbing should be a piece of cake.

Some time before Christmas would be nice.

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