Thank you Santa!

Ken Tapping, December 25th 2013

In the sky this week…

  • Venus shines brightly, very low in the Southwest after sunset.
  • Jupiter and Mars rise about 6 pm and 1 am respectively. Saturn rises around 5 am.
  • The Moon will reach Last Quarter on the 25th.

During 2013 we got an early Christmas Present, so it is about time we produced a Thank You Note. The present was extremely tiny, and was the result of a lot of hard work. A bonus was that the man who predicted its existence was around to see it discovered and to win the Nobel Prize for it. Its existence was confirmed on 14 March, 2013. This was a wonderful present because it supports an idea we have depended on for years.

Over the last decade or two the world of science has been changing. We have seen geology, which is a science originally applied only to the Earth, extended to the Moon and other worlds. We can now buy textbooks on the geology of Mars. Our studies of stars and galaxies have led us back to the beginning of the universe and the fundamental nature of space, matter and time. Scientists like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking have helped us a lot with space and time, which leaves us with the need to understand matter. Without this we cannot understand the workings of stars, what goes on in neutron stars and black holes, or what went on when the universe began.

For a long time we have known that matter is made of atoms, which are in turn made up protons, neutrons and electrons, and these in turn are made up of a whole menagerie of "elementary particles". These particles have been divided on the basis of their properties into two classes: bosons and fermions (named after Bose and Fermi, both famous physicists). The properties of these particles and the forces involved in their interactions became known as the "Standard Model", and it worked so well it became the starting place in research, hence the name.

However, something was missing. There was another, essential particle without which the model would not work. Since the model did work, it was generally assumed that the missing particle was "out there somewhere". The first person to describe what its properties had to be was British physicist Peter Higgs, hence the particle acquiring the name "Higgs boson".

No scientific idea can possibly depend upon only an assumption that something exists, even though the idea works. The Standard Model is so fundamental there has been a 40-year quest to detect the missing ingredient, the Higgs boson. The search for this was a major reason for building the Large Hadron Collider, located at CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland. In 2012 the first evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson was found. In March 2013 its existence was confirmed.

Our universe exists as we see it around us because on the whole, space, time and matter are stable. We could not live if the iron atoms in our blood frequently decided to turn into something else. Most stars shine steadily over billions of years. This means that the atoms making up all matter have to be stable too. So we would expect it to be very difficult to take atoms apart to look inside, and even harder to look inside the protons, neutrons and electrons of which they are made.

In the thousands of years we have been doing science, many of our ideas as to how things work have been wrong, even though for a while they seemed entirely reasonable. We have to keep looking for loose ends and pulling at them to see if a theory unravels, especially if it is an important one. So our Big Present is that we can continue to use the Standard Model for a bit longer.

I am taking this opportunity to wish you a Happy Christmas and Season’s Greetings. Thanks for your feedback, questions and suggestions during 2013. Keep looking up!

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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