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To Infinity and Beyond: The Higgs Boson

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Scientific essay submitted to the 2012 DuPont Science Essay Challenge.
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  To Infinity and Beyond   Albert Einstein once stated, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” The universe has baffled scientists for centuries. Many physicists have dedicated their entire life to learning and understanding the basic building blocks of matter. In third grade, an assembly speaker described the Big Bang theory; the idea that the universe was created from a massive explosion billions of years ago, resulting in the birth of the stars and planets. I was in awe with the fact that a mysterious particle could have given birth to the planets, stars, and even ourselves. It got me thinking: How was the universe created? What would scientists need to know to unravel the mysteries of the universe? What are the possibilities in the scientific world with such a powerful discovery? In the nineteenth century, the discovery of the main building blocks of matter--electrons, protons, and neutrons--gave us the likes of electricity and nuclear energy. Since then, even more elementary particles, like quarks (the constituents of protons and neutrons), have been uncovered. Recently, the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva made headlines for the possible sighting of the Higgs boson. Simply put, the Higgs boson is a particle that gives all other particles their mass. Without mass, all the particles in the universe would be darting through space at the speed of light. One of the early formulators of the Higgs boson was a British physicist named Peter Higgs. In the 1960s, Higgs (one of many scientists who suggested the possibility) proposed the idea that there is an invisible field pervading the universe, which gives all particles passing through the field their mass. This occurs through a physical interaction known as the Higgs mechanism. The field, which became known as the Higgs field, is composed of particles (the Higgs bosons) which cluster around other particles that pass through the field, thus slowing down these particles. There is only one known exception to the theory, photons. Light is the globally accepted speed limit of the universe. In 1905, Einstein proposed his theory of special relativity, which concluded that no particle can surpass the speed of light. The basic particles of light, photons, do not interact with the Higgs field, and so have no mass. I like to compare the Higgs mechanism to a crowd of people (the Higgs Bosons) slowing down a person (particle under study) trying to reach the shopping aisle on a Black Friday. The more people that prevent the shopper from reaching the aisle, the slower she gets. Similarly, the greater the number of Higgs bosons that cluster around a particle, the more mass the particle has and slows down. My next aim was to identify the methods through which scientists hoped to identify the Higgs boson. Particle accelerators have long been used to break down matter into elementary particles. In Fermilab, a laboratory in Illinois, physicists used a particle accelerator called Tevatron to determine the presence of the Higgs boson. They managed to narrow down the range of masses for the particle. Disappointingly, they were unable to go any further, since Tevatron was not powerful enough to supply the required high voltage beams. This prompted the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator located at CERN. To locate the Higgs boson, physicists slam together particles at extremely high speeds to simulate the conditions Varsha VenkatMonta Vista High School  that would have been present in the early universe. The CERN particle accelerator consists of a series of chambers and tunnels, which propel particles at speeds of up to 99.9% of the speed of light. When protons and antiproton beams collide at such speeds, it will result in the formation of primitive matter similar to the ones that existed at the Big Bang and the immediate aftermath. The task of identifying the Higgs Boson is extremely difficult, as it lasts only a fraction of a second before disintegrating. Scientists hypothesize that by analyzing the debris particles from the remnants, they can identify the long awaited Higgs Boson. Many scientists also believe that there is a possibility of there existing up to five different Higgs fields. Therefore, there is a theory that there are multiple Higgs bosons, one for each field. Identifying the Higgs boson could open a number of doors for the scientific community, as well as humanity as a whole. Just as learning to work with electromagnetism led to all the technologies of this modern age, understanding the Higgs field might be able to open a gateway to a whole other dimension--a realm of space and time which we didn’t think existed. We are already attempting to identify habitable planets other than our own. Once the secrets behind the Higgs boson are uncovered, we could manipulate matter. If we use this knowledge responsibly, covering a distance of millions of light years could be a simple feat to accomplish. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of life as we know it. Just by altering the mass of particles, people could change the fundamental entity of matter. Valuable lessons have been learnt from the use of nuclear fission in World War II. I hope that we have taken those lessons to heart, and can pursue these scientific discoveries for the good of humanity and nature. Whether for better or for worse, a glimpse of the Higgs boson would definitely lead us to infinity and beyond.   Varsha VenkatMonta Vista High School
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