What the Higgs Boson Owes to the World Wide Web

Quick: Name the greatest thing ever to come out of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research.

If your answer is the Higgs boson, the existence of which was more or less confirmed this week by two teams working on parallel experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), I respectfully disagree. The greatest thing to come out of CERN is the World Wide Web, which was first conceived by former CERN computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau in 1989 as a tool for creating a network of hypertext documents such as physics papers.

In fact, I’d argue that 1) Web was one of the key enabling technologies that allowed the LHC to be constructed in the first place, and 2) without the Web, average citizens would be having a much harder time understanding this week’s discovery.

It’s a provocative point of view, I know, so let me step through the two parts of my argument one at a time.

First, hats off to the armies of scientists at CERN. The world is rightly hailing the discovery of the Higgs boson as a keystone moment in science. The Higgs was the last particle needed to complete the “standard model” of particle physics, and if it’s real, it vindicates the leading theory about why elementary particles like quarks and electrons have mass.

Let’s be honest, though—it’s not like this was a big surprise. Smoking out the Higgs particle was the whole reason governments spent $10 billion to build the LHC, and so far, it seems to have the exact properties that physicists have been predicting since the 1960s. Not finding it at the predicted energies, or finding a Higgs-like particle that didn’t quite accord with the theory (thus forcing physicists to go back to the drawing board), would have been much more interesting news.

Data collected on May 13, 2012, by the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider. The yellow dotted lines and green towers show two protons, the probable decay products of a Higgs boson. Source: CERN

Then there’s the matter of the Higgs particle itself, which is a bit of a kludge. Physicists came up with the idea mainly so that they wouldn’t have to throw out an elegant set of equations about the symmetry of quantum interactions. The problem with these equations was that they had no provisions for mass; the new theory explained mass as the resistance certain particles encounter as they move through a pervasive, molasses-like “Higgs field.” (The Higgs boson is a manifestation of the Higgs field, briefly brought into being inside the LHC when protons slam into one another at nearly the speed of light.) Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, calls the Higgs field “an unfortunate hack.” Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Sheldon Glashow has derided it as the standard model’s version of the toilet. “It fulfills an important and necessary function, but one is not proud of it and doesn’t want to show it off to the neighbors,” mathematician Peter Woit wrote in a paraphrase of Glashow’s objection.

But while the plumbing of the universe may not be pretty, we wouldn’t know if it was there at all without the LHC. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the LHC itself couldn’t have been built without the kind of international communication and collaboration that the Web enabled. My evidence is simple: The U.S. tried to build a bigger and better particle collider in Texas between 1987 and 1993—before the Web had really taken hold—and failed.

The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was to be constructed south of Dallas and would have boosted particles to far higher energies than those the LHC can reach. The Department of Energy spent $2 billion on the project and bored 14 miles of tunnels before Congress killed the project in 1993. If the project had gone forward on schedule, the Higgs boson would have been discovered years ago—at least, so says Harvard physicist Lisa Randall.

There are many ways to explain the cancellation: budget overruns, DOE mismanagement, and the skyrocketing cost of a competing project, the International Space Station, were all factors. But I’d argue that the physics community’s inability to mount an effective public-relations campaign to save the SSC was another big cause. If scientists had had the modern Web at their disposal, they could have educated the public directly about why the project was important, and perhaps spurred a grassroots movement to rescue it.

I’m not saying that Kickstarter could have saved the SSC. But the Web has clearly been a huge boon for the LHC, which was built between 1998 and 2008. Not only has it been an important channel for generating taxpayer support for the project in Europe, but it also has been the key repository for design and planning documents and scientific reports. It’s hard to see how a project spanning laboratories in Canada, France, India, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, the United States, and the U.K. could have been completed without … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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