Cosmic Molasses

by Kim Steele

Cockcroft-Walton Generator at Fermi Lab, photograph by Kim Steele



I have pursued particle physics visually for thirty years. 

(Coming back in next life as Particle Physicist), I have photographed all the major accelerators, Department of Energy facilities, fusion (Shiva) and fission experiments (Princeton) and the depths of the home of The Manhattan Project, Los Alamos.


Fermi Accelerator Rings, photograph by Kim Steele

Fermi Accelerator Rings, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), Illinois, photograph by Kim Steele



“What the British physicist Peter Higgs and several others showed is that if there exists an otherwise invisible background field permeating all of space, then the particles that convey some force like electromagnetism can interact with this field and effectively encounter resistance to their motion and slow down, like a swimmer moving through molasses.

from: The New York Times, Science, A Blip That Speaks of Our Place in the Universe, by LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS, July 9, 2012

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centers for particle physics. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what elements compose the Universe and how it originated. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.


The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they collide with each other, or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.  Founded in 1954 on the Swiss Franco border, CERN recently has been detecting a subatomic particle, a neutrino, possibly traveling faster than the speed of light (182 thousand plus miles a second).  This transpired underground since neutrinos have no essential mass. This could possibly change the entire understanding of our Universe, know as the Standard Model.  Einstein postulated in his theory of Relativity that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light.


Why is the research on particles so important? One accelerator at CERN, and there are three, is the Large Hadron Particle Collider. The term hadron refers to composite particles composed of quarks held together by the strong force (as atoms and molecules are held together by the electromagnetic force). The best-known hadrons are protons and neutrons.


Flying Neutrino, as depicted in The New York Times by artist Elwood H. Smith,










The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory concerning the electromagnetic, both weak, and strong nuclear interactions, which mediate the dynamics of the known subatomic particles.

Still, the Standard Model falls short of being a complete theory of fundamental interactions because it does not incorporate the physics of dark energy nor of the full theory of gravitation as described by general relativity. In particle physics, the Higgs mechanism (named after a Scottish scientist in the 60’s) is the process that gives mass to elementary particles. The particles gain mass by interacting with the Higgs field that permeates all space. As in passing through an energy field which give it mass.


Tristan Topaz Accelerator, Japan, photograph by Kim Steele


In the Standard Model, gauge bosons are defined as force carriers that mediate the strong, weak, and electromagnetic fundamental interactions. It is the Higgs Mechanism that permeates all space, like cosmic molasses. It is the reaction of particles with this Higgs field that provides mass to all particles. The Higgs field interacts with particles like protons and electrons, creating resistance to them known as the Higgs boson.  Without this field, we could not explain mass. A boson is a particle that controls the interaction of two other fundamental particles, commonly called the boson gauge, such as a photon.  The boson, named after an Indian scientist, is theorized as massless.  Hence the name Higgs Boson, which is yet undetected but theoretically should be massive in comparison to other fundamental particles.


The search at CERN to detect this sub particle is so difficult because it too has essentially no mass and a very weak charge.  The accelerator creates exceedingly powerful charges to the other particles, exploding them into one another on a target, or detector that records various particles, and hopefully the Higgs Boson.


In December, two detectors saw some evidence of Higgs, as ‘bumps’ in data.  This was detected at CERN as well as the Tevatron at Fermi Lab outside of Chicago. The Tevatron ceased operations on 30 September, 2011, due to budget cuts-it was Tevatron’s last heroic effort!  But the LHC at CERN is carrying the mantle into the future.  They have since dismissed the faster than light neutrino, so for now, Einstein’s theory still hold true.  The scientists are so close to this discovery that they claim ‘it will be solved by the end of 2012.’ Physicists hope that the LHC will help answer some of the fundamental open questions in physics, concerning the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary objects, the deep structure of space and time, and in particular the intersection of quantum mechanics and general relativity.  We will finally have some insight to the ‘dark matter’ which comprises over ninety percent of the Universe.


Fermi Accelerator, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), Illinois, photograph by Kim Steele



(AGI) Paris (April 28, 2012) European CERN physicists discovered a new subatomic particle, a baryon named ‘Xi_b’. A baryon is formed by three quarks, among them protons and neutrons, which form most of visible matter. The ‘Xi_b’ has not been directly observed because it is far too unstable, but the researchers found its traces thanks to an experiment conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world largest particle accelerator .

GENEVA (April 27, 2012)European researchers said Friday they have discovered a new subatomic particle that helps confirm knowledge about how quarks bind, one of the basic forces in the shaping of matter.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, said Friday the particle was discovered at one of CERN’s two main experiments involving thousands of researchers, in collaboration with the University of Zurich.

Joe Incandela, the physicist in charge of the experiment involved with the discovery, told The Associated Press the particle was predicted long ago but said finding it was “really kind of a classic tour de force of experimental work.”

The particle is an excited beauty baryon called the Ξb*0 (Ξb is pronounced “Csai – bee”), CERN said.

GENEVA (April 27, 2012) — Scientists at Europe’s CERN research centre have found a new subatomic particle, a basic building block of the universe, which appears to be the boson imagined and named half a century ago by theoretical physicist Peter Higgs.

“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” CERN director general Rolf Heuer told a gathering of scientists and the world’s media near Geneva on Wednesday.

“The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

First, it caps one of the most remarkable intellectual adventures in human history — one that anyone interested in the progress of knowledge should at least be aware of.

Second, it makes even more remarkable the precarious accident that allowed our existence to form from nothing — further proof that the universe of our senses is just the tip of a vast, largely hidden cosmic iceberg.

And finally, the effort to uncover this tiny particle represents the very best of what the process of science can offer to modern civilization.



TWO Higgs Bosons???

By Michael Moyer | from Scientific American (December 14, 2012)

A month ago scientists at the Large Hadron Collider released the latest Higgs boson results. And although the data held few obvious surprises, most intriguing were the results that scientists didn’t share.

The original Higgs data from back in July had shown that the Higgs seemed to be decaying into two photons more often than it should—an enticing though faint hint of something new, some sort of physics beyond our understanding. In November, scientists at the Atlas and LHC experiments updated everything except the two-photon data. This week we learned why.

Yesterday researchers at the Atlas experiment finally updated the two-photon results. What they seem to have found is bizarre—so bizarre, in fact, that physicists assume something must be wrong with it. Instead of one clean peak in the data, they have found two. There seems to be a Higgs boson with a mass of 123.5 GeV (gigaelectron volts, the measuring unit that particle physicists most often use for mass), and another Higgs boson at 126.6 GeV—a statistically significant difference of nearly 3 GeV. Apparently, the Atlas scientists have spent the past month trying to figure out if they could be making a mistake in the data analysis, to little avail. Might there be two Higgs bosons?

Although certain extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics postulate the existence of multiple Higgs bosons, none of them would predict that two Higgs particles would have such similar masses. They also don’t predict why one should preferentially decay into two Z particles (the 123.5 GeV bump comes from decays of the Higgs into Zs), while the other would decay into photons.

The particle physicist Adam Falkowski (under the nom de plume Jester) writes that the results “most likely signal a systematic problem rather than some interesting physics.” (By “systematic problem” he means something like a poorly-calibrated detector.) The physicist Tommaso Dorigo bets that it’s a statistical fluke that will go away with more data. Indeed, he’s willing to bet $100 on it with up to five people, in case you’re the kind of person who likes to wager on the results of particle physics experiments with particle physicists. The Atlas physicists are well aware of both of these possibilities, of course, and have spent the past month trying to shake the data out to see if they can fix it. Still, the anomaly remains.

But let’s not let this intriguing blip distract us from the original scent of new physics. Back when the preliminary data seemed to show that the Higgs was decaying into two photons more often than it should, I wrote that it could be “a statistical blip that would wash away in the coming flood of data.” But more data has now arrived, and the blip hasn’t gone anywhere. The Higgs boson continues to appear to be decaying into two photons nearly twice as often as it should.



Higgs and Englert Are Awarded Nobel Prize in Physics

From The New York Times: (October 8, 2013)


The “God particle” became the Prize particle on Tuesday.

Two theoretical physicists who suggested that an invisible ocean of energy suffusing space is responsible for the mass and diversity of the particles in the universe won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday morning. They are Peter Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and François Englert, 80, of the University Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

The theory, elucidated in 1964, sent physicists on a generation-long search for a telltale particle known as the Higgs boson, or the God particle. The chase culminated in July 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland.

Dr. Higgs and Dr. Englert will split a prize of $1.2 million, to be awarded in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said the prize was “for the discovery of the mechanism that contributes to understanding the origin of the mass of subatomic particles.”



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