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CONTRIBUTOR > A big day of victory in mankind’s efforts to understand nature

İSMET BERKAN

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We are curious living creatures. We are curious about our surroundings; we ask difficult questions to ourselves, such as: Why are we here? How did we arrive here?

One of the toughest questions is “How did the universe begin?” This is a relatively new question. Less than 100 years ago, we thought the universe came from eternity and was going to eternity.

But the curiosity of mankind questioned this thought and poked it until the end. Today, we know there was a beginning of the universe. The universe we know of, at least, started with the “Big Bang.” It started this way, but why did it explode? What exploded? How did it explode?

We do not know the answers to these essential questions, but at least we know that we don’t know.

However, not knowing the answers to the questions “why” and “how” has not stopped us. We regarded that moment of explosion as a singularity, decided that our present rules of physics were not applicable to that moment, and focused on a very short period after that moment, i.e. about one millionth of a second later.

What happened to the energy-loaded particles that went off with the explosion and what happened to transform them into atoms? We have an answer to this question: It is called the standard model, which has been created and developed by thousands of physicists all around the world.

But there was a missing part in the model. The mechanism of how the particles transformed from energy to mass did not quite fit. In 1964, in three separate groups, six physicists, almost at the same time, came up with the same theory. The fact that we only know the name of Peter Higgs today from among these physicists: François Englert and Robert Brout, Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble, and that the suggested particle is called the “Higgs boson,” is a story of the injustices of the science world.

But let’s proceed without further rambling: These physicists wrote the mathematics of a mechanism that conferred mass to particles, at least to some particles. Today, what is referred to as “Higgs boson” or “Higgs field”, and also as “the God particle,” is the result of this mathematics. Particles acquire mass while passing through this “field.” This mechanism is known as the “Higgs mechanism.”

However, it is a different story to be able to prove what mathematics and pure theory predict. The most famous example of this is Einstein. Almost everything he predicted more than a century ago in theory with pure mathematics was later proved via experimental methods. The mass gravitational force bending light is included in this, as well as the transformation of energy into mass, the force that makes the atom bomb possible.

Here we go: The theory behind the presentation we watched at European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on Wednesday had been constructed way back, some 48 years ago. The existence of the Higgs boson, also known by a name Peter Higgs hated, “The God Particle,” for which the kind of experiment that would prove its existence was written up 28 years ago, has been proven to exist by an experimental method. In other words, we now know for sure how mass is formed. And what we call mass is us, our world, everything around us, whatever we see in the universe. If nature did not have a Higgs mechanism, none of this, none of us, would have existed.

The endless curiosity of mankind has won another victory; we can understand nature a bit more now. And this is no small matter.

İsmet Berkan is a columnist for daily Hürriyet, in which this piece was published July 5. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.

İSMET BERKAN - iberkan@hurriyet.com.tr

July/06/2012

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