On the surface, it may seem that the Higgs boson does not affect everyday life. Not directly, anyway: it is a short-lived particle that does not make up the matter we are made of and interact with, and can only be observed in the extreme conditions created in particle accelerators.
Yet its importance is, firstly, to make better sense of the world, and secondly, because the research surrounding its discovery has had, and will continue to have, positive impacts on society.
The nature of science
It is human nature to be curious. This includes being curious about our universe, questioning how it evolved into what we know today. The goal of fundamental physics is to keep finding answers to these questions.
The Higgs boson itself is part of the answer to why we – and everything we interact with – have mass. The Higgs boson underpins the whole Standard Model like a jigsaw piece, spurring on our curiosity and creating a more accurate picture of the universe around us.
Since the beginning of humanity, curiosity has fuelled the advancement of science. Each new discovery has built upon what was previously known, continuously advancing our understanding of the universe.
Applying this scientific knowledge to different fields has revolutionised everyday life. One example is JJ Thomson's discovery of the electron in 1897 – the first fundamental particle found experimentally. In our technology-driven world, it is hard to imagine life without the ability to manipulate electrons. Every day, we use electronics for industry, communication, entertainment, transport, medicine; the list goes on. Of course, upon discovery, Thomson did not know how much the electron would revolutionise society. More than 100 years on, the world is a changed place.
Because of the nature of science, we do not know to what extent discoveries made now will impact our future. In other words, it may only be a matter of time before the Higgs boson directly influences society.
Benefits to society from new technologies
The search for the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) pushed the limits of technology. Extremely high energies were needed to accelerate particles to almost the speed of light, unprecedented detail and precision was needed to accurately detect the collisions of these particle beams, and unrivalled computing technology was needed to map and record each of the millions of particle collisions produced per second.
It can be said that the Higgs boson has indirectly affected everyday life, since many of the technologies developed to find it are now in use all over the globe, in areas well beyond particle physics.
For example, the invention of the World Wide Web at CERN was born out of particle physicists’ needs to share data across institutes. Now, society depends on the World Wide Web every day to communicate and work. Similarly, in the early 1970s, engineers from CERN contributed to the advancement of touchscreen technology by trying to create a simple interface to use with one of CERN’s particle accelerators. Since then, touchscreens have gone on to be a mainstay in everyday life.
Another field that has benefitted from particle physics research is healthcare. Accelerator technology is used to treat cancer, in hadron therapy and electron radiotherapy. Further, particle physics detectors are used in medical diagnostics, such as the 3D colour X-ray scanner, based on technology developed at CERN. Particle accelerators also led to the development of Positron Emission Tomography (PET), which is essential for imaging and diagnosing conditions in the brain and heart.
Detector technology has also helped advance the aerospace sector, improving research even beyond our planet. The extreme environments in space are very similar to those found in underground particle physics experiments. This means technologies such as radiation monitoring can be applied in space to protect equipment and the safety of astronauts.
CERN’s computing infrastructure is also being used to protect our own planet, such as through monitoring air pollution. Furthermore, CERN has committed to using its technology and knowhow to strive for a more sustainable future.
And it’s not just in the fields of science and technology, either. Particle physics detectors have even been used to protect our cultural heritage, such as unveiling a long-lost artwork by the great Renaissance painter Raphael.
There are plenty more, too: new technologies are continuously being developed from particle accelerators such as the LHC, despite their primary goal of searching for particles like the Higgs boson. These all have benefits to many different areas of society and will only continue expanding as research advances.