There is great excitement over the discovery of the
Higgs particle. I am a physicist by profession and can easily
feel this: these days all the friends I meet inexorably ask me
"So then, what about the boson? Are you happy?"
Yes, we are very happy and to explain why we need to step back.
I do not know how many remember the fateful phrase in school texts: the electric force and the gravitational force are inversely proportional to the square of the distance. These two forces can be perceived also at a great distance from the source: the earth is attracted to a great extent by the sun and the magnetic field generated at the center of the earth affects the compass throughout the planet. Precisely for this reason it is said that these two forces are long-range forces. There are other forces in nature: nuclear forces, which cause the protons and neutrons to attract each other to form a nucleus (strong interactions), and those responsible for radioactive decay (weak interactions). These other two forces have a very small range of action: they are zero, under all respects, when we are at a distance larger than the radius of a nucleus: they are virtually contact interactions.
Developing a theory that explains all the forces that exist in nature is an ambitious goal that physicists have been trying to achieve for a long time. Building a theory starting from primary principles is not easy: the theory must be consistent with the general principles, not be self-contradictory and be in accordance with the experiments. The first attempts to build a theory of weak interactions were made (as from the 50s) by attempting to extend the theory of electromagnetism which was very well understood. However this approach led very quickly to a crossroads between two dead ends: either the proposed theory was only approximate and suffered from severe inconsistencies, or it envisaged the existence of other long range forces, in striking contrast with everyday experience. In 1964 two almost contemporary theoretical works, by Brout and Englert the former, by Higgs the latter, identified a physical phenomenon which suggested that it was possible to build a consistent theory for weak interactions, without having to introduce long-range forces. Brout and Englert put their finger on the physical mechanism and Higgs noted that this mechanism, which he had also proposed independently, implied the existence of a new particle, the Higgs boson, precisely. In 1967-1968 Weinberg and Salam (a pair of Nobel Prizes) built a realistic model for weak interactions, precisely based on the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism. The consistency of the model was demonstrated in the early 70's by Hooft and Veltman (it was not an easy task and the two Dutch also received their Nobel Prize). The main prediction of the Weinberg and Salam model was the existence of two heavy bosons, the W and Z, which were discovered at CERN in the 80's (Nobel Prize to Rubbia and van der Meer).
In the past thirty years the theory of Weinberg and Salam has been confirmed in a huge number of experiments, however, it lacked the final test, the existence of the Higgs particle. Finding it was definitely not easy and this is why the physicist Lederman privately called it the “Goddammed particle”, also to vent his frustration, a name that became known to the public, unreasonably censored, as the "God's particle". Many physicists were willing to bet that the Higgs boson must exist too: the theory as a whole had many, albeit indirect, experimental confirmations. However there is a fundamental difference between believing in the existence of a particle and experimentally proving its existence. Up to now the possibility that consistency between the theory and the experiments could be just random had remained open, as was the possibility of discovering the non-existence of the Higgs boson, which would have made this whole construction tumble as a house of cards ( and both Weinberg and Salam's heirs, would have had to return the Nobel Prize).
But this did not happen: the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson made on 4 July by Fabiola Gianotti and Joseph Incandela (Spokesmen of the two experiments conducted at CERN in Geneva) closed a long and troubled chapter of physics. It remains to be experimentally demonstrated whether the current theory accurately describes all the phenomena that can be observed with current experiments, or if, on the contrary, the theory must be partially modified or enriched, with respect to phenomena never yet observed.
This moment of joy however, is overcast by a dark shadow: as you can read online the Government has decided to make major cuts in funding to research entities with a special emphasis on the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, whose president Nando Ferroni immediately declared:
"We had just finished celebrating the role played by Italy and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in the discovery of the Higgs boson that we were rewarded: a 10 percent cut in the technical and administrative staff and a budget cut that will prevent us from continuing being leaders in the international scene. The institute is obviously available to make the sacrifices necessary for the country's recovery, but we are amazed by the logic of a cut that is the largest among all those applied to research institutions and which was made without any consultation. Destroying excellence is simple and can be done by one decree, recreating it will be the work of many generations".
How can we not share his bitterness?
The article is part of the contribution of the author to Foundation Keep Searching