A mere subatomic particle, the Higgs boson will not cure cancer, reverse global warming, eradicate the federal deficit or even ease traffic on the Long Island Expressway. The Higgs has been around a long time, after all, and it hasn't done any of those things yet.
On the other hand, the announcement last week that scientists believe they've found the elusive particle implies something much grander: that our ideas about the essential nature of the universe appear to be correct.
That's a huge thrill. But it's also quite a relief, because without the Higgs boson we couldn't fully explain why things have mass, which most of us know as weight. Back in 1964, Peter Higgs (and other physicists working separately around the same time) postulated the existence of a pervasive field that gave things mass as they moved through it.
Think of a roomful of physicists. Now imagine that Peter Higgs himself enters, determined to exit the other side. In his world, the man is a rock star, so naturally, as he tries to move through the adoring throng, scientists congregate around him seeking handshakes and autographs, slowing him down. All those people are like a Higgs field, and in that crowded room they give their visiting hero mass. A Higgs particle is a piece of that field, isolated for the briefest moment by subatomic collisions. This is the evidence scientists appear to have identified at last, confirming the basics of the Standard Model of particle physics, one of the great intellectual achievements of the postwar era. The discovery culminates decades of search.
Yet many questions about the Higgs phenomenon, and particle physics generally, remain. There are scientific questions, such as: What is the nature of the mysterious "dark matter" believed to make up most of the universe? There are speculative questions that capture the public imagination, such as whether time travel might be possible, or extra dimensions might lurk folded away somewhere in the universe.
And there are political questions, such as: What role will America play in advancing such research?
The United States was once the leader in particle physics. But the Higgs boson was discovered at the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider under the area where Switzerland and France meet. The Tevatron, a powerful atom smasher in Illinois that helped in the Higgs search, closed last year, surpassed by the newer collider in Europe.
The Higgs particle could have been found in the United States years ago had not Congress cut off funding in 1993 for a collider planned for Texas -- one considerably more powerful than the collider later built in Europe. The bipartisan cutoff came after nearly $2 billion had been spent on the project, doled out in a slow-motion funding stream that unfortunately pushed up costs -- as so often happens when governments try to build things.
In retrospect, that discontinuation of funding looks shortsighted. America is unlikely to maintain its pre-eminence without maintaining its global lead in science, and hardly anyone else is better situated to do the kind of "big science" we can, thanks to our vast intellectual, financial and geographic resources. In addition to making our country a magnet for talent, spending on science can yield valuable unforeseen technologies. Yet for now, the center of particle physics has moved to Geneva, the headquarters of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered by the Higgs discovery is one physics is never likely to answer. The Higgs boson helps us understand the nature of the universe, yet it doesn't explain why there is a universe -- or why there is anything at all, rather than nothing. In that respect, more than any other, it proves its nickname -- "the God particle" -- a misnomer. But don't blame the Higgs boson for failing to answer such ultimate mysteries. Helping explain reality is plenty for any one particle, and reason enough for excitement.