Monday, March 29, 2004

Hunt for the God Particle It's known as the Higgs boson, postulated by British physicist Peter Higgs in 1960, as the mechanism by which particles acquire mass. Why does a particle have the mass it has? Why does an electron have the mass it has? Why is a top quark 200,000 times more massive than an electron? Physics has no answer. But Peter Higgs' proposal is that there is a field that permeates space, known as the Higgs field, which gives particles their masses when they interact with the field. From quantum theory, we know that fields have particles associated with them, and hence the Higgs field must have a Higgs boson. Scientists at CERN are building the Large Hadron Collider -- a massive particle accelerator that will send protons in 17-mile laps at nearly the speed of light, then direct the protons to collide with each other. This will result in a disaster for the protons, but an incredible opportunity for scientists -- somewhere buried within the protons, must be the Higgs boson, and they way of getting to it is to break the proton apart. The explosion of the two protons will send out a shower of fundamental particles, whose trajectories, momentum and mass will reveal a lot of information. Information. Remember CERN? It was the lab that produced the Web, the www of every URL -- and now they've invented something completely new that may change the face of computing forever. They've invented grid computing -- the process by which massively parallel problems can be broken up and given to multiple processors within a network to solve. Think SETI on an incredible scale. Corporations are already busily building their own versions of grid computing -- the promises are ubiquitous computing power across the planet, where problems can be crunched without the requesting party knowing exactly where the processing is happening. There are lots of problems to be worked out -- for instance, the Large Hadron Collider will be generating over 2 million DVDs worth of data annually, and it must be send to computing centres across the globe for processing; it's a data mining problem at a mind-boggling scale. And here's the exciting part -- they're going to do it across the internet -- now think of the commercial applications for you and I -- and to think, the internet, and now grid computing, came out of a lab that straddles the Swiss-France border, where scientists aren't out to change the world, just out to understand it. Enough reasons for the public funding of education, ain't it?
The Large Hadron Collider, under construction at CERN, is targeting the elusive Higgs boson. But crashing protons is the easy part.  Photo by Maximilien Brice/©CERN.

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