Last week physicists at a conference in Mumbai said if the Higgs boson, that ephemeral heavyweight among elementary particles, existed, it could be pinned down by the year end. Disconcertingly however, if the particle isn’t found, it would mean serious cracks in the extant theory, called the Standard Model, which explains how a small combination of particles forms temporary coalitions to build all that we perceive in the universe.
Billions of dollars have been expended on constructing gigantic colliders to smash subatomic particles in pursuit of the Higgs, but scientists are now 95% sure that it exists within a narrow band of 114 to 145GeV (gigaelectronvolt), a unit of energy. Finding the Higgs will be reassuring, but its absence shouldn’t be seen as more than a minor setback, especially for Indian science. This is the first major particle physics experiment that has seen significant intellectual and technological contribution by Indian scientists. Key portions of the detectors that are scouting for particles have been built on the back of components entirely fashioned out of Indian foundries.
Previously, scientists from India rarely got to participate on an equal footing and both funds as well as international prestige were key stumbling blocks. Funds, as is evidenced from the ever-increasing budgetary allocations for Indian science, no longer seem to be a problem in contrast with Europe and America where research monies are increasingly scarce. It could very likely be that future particle colliders or global experiments could be led by a generation of Indian scientists who have been trained at cutting-edge American institutions and be economically backed by countries such as India and China. Already a major neutrino detector is being constructed deep in the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu.
Though the Higgs is the poster boy of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment, its detection is itself not the entire point of the endeavour. If undetected, scientists would have to come up with new mechanisms to explain how particles acquire mass, which in turn could throw up fresh insight into the workings of the universe. The laws of probability, then would also mean increased likelihood of an Indian physicist bagging a Nobel prize. Therefore, the Higgs boson may find it harder to hide, but even if it succeeds, science doesn’t lose.
Will LHC be a success if the Higgs particles isn’t found? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org