Elizabeth Kolbert on the Large Hadron Collider :
To theorists, the tantalizing promise of the L.H.C. is that it will, finally, supply the evidence of “new physics” that they’ve been waiting for. Certain patterns of missing energy, for example, would suggest the existence of extra dimensions, as would the creation of mini black holes. Different results—also in the form of missing energy—would indicate the existence of squarks or other superparticles. There are good theoretical reasons to expect these phenomena to begin to appear at the energy level of the L.H.C., or so at least Arkani-Hamed tried to explain to me over several more espressos. He told me that he was completely confident the Higgs would be found at the collider: “I would bet many, many months’ salary.” He also said that if the Higgs was the only result, the L.H.C. would be a disappointment. “We theorists, we’re a hard lot to please. We’ve taken things for granted for so long we say, ‘Oh, yeah, for sure you’ll discover the Higgs.’ But the things we’re really interested in are all these major puzzles.”
where does mass itself come from?
More than 40 years ago, a number of researchers, including Peter Higgs, an English physicist, suggested an answer: perhaps space is pervaded by a field, much like the electromagnetic fields generated by cellphones and radio broadcasts, that acts like invisible molasses.
When we push something in the effort to make it move faster, the Higgs molasses would exert a drag force — and it’s this resistance, as the Higgs theory goes, that we commonly call the object’s mass. Scientists have incorporated this idea as a centerpiece of the so-called standard model — a refined mathematical edifice, viewed by many as the crowning achievement of particle physics, that since the 1970s has described the behavior of nature’s basic constituents with unprecedented accuracy.
The one component of the standard model that remains stubbornly unconfirmed is the very notion of the Higgs’ “molasses” field. However, collisions at the Large Hadron Collider should be able to chip off little chunks of the ubiquitous Higgs field (if it exists), creating what are known as Higgs bosons or Higgs particles. If these particles are found, the standard model, more than a quarter-century after its articulation, will finally be complete.
Martin Schmaltz writes another introduction. Steven Hawking bets that people won’t find the Higgs boson, and that would make physics even more interesting.
I get all gushy about big science, if only because it is completely beyond my comprehension. As I look through Wikipedia, it’s clear to me how often theoretical possibilities inspire great science fiction. (See also this). By the way, currently, LHC is down for repairs; expected to come online again in July 2009. Wikipedia says it might take up to 3 years to gather enough data to prove or disprove the existence of the Higgs boson.
Joel Aschenbach defends basic science projects like LHC:
Some U.S. money has gone into the LHC, which will cost billions of dollars: five, maybe ten—the exact number is elusive (the science will be precise, but the accounting apparently follows the Uncertainty Principle). But most of the engineering is being done by European firms. Jürgen Schukraft, who supervises an LHC experiment named ALICE (which will re-create conditions the same as those just after the big bang), said, "The brain drain that used to go from Europe to the States definitely has reversed."
The cynic might say that there’s no practical use for any of this, that there might be other uses for all the money and brainpower going into these particle guns. But we live in a civilization shaped by physics. We know that the forces within an atom are so powerful that, unleashed and directed against humanity, they can obliterate cities in an instant. The laptop computer on which I’m writing uses microprocessors that would not exist had we not discovered quantum physics and the quirky behavior of electrons. This story will be posted on the World Wide Web—invented, in case you hadn’t heard, at CERN, by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. Maybe you’re reading it while listening to your iPod, which wouldn’t exist but for something called "giant magnetoresistance." Two physicists discovered it independently in the late 1980s, with not much thought of how it might eventually be used. It became crucial to making tiny consumer electronics that used magnetized hard disks. The physicists won a Nobel Prize in 2007, and you got a nifty sound system that’s smaller than a Hershey bar.