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MC's Fasano discusses the impact of the 'God particle'

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College physics professor Chris Fasano has mixed emotions about the discovery of the Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle.”

The subatomic particle, which is credited for giving mass to matter, was theorized in the 1960s by Peter Higgs. Its discovery was announced last week at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, which was constructed to help discover it.

On the one hand, said Fasano, “It would’ve been more fun if they hadn’t found it. Some of our greatest scientific discoveries have come when things don’t turn out like we thought.”

Fasano referenced a famous quotation by physicist Enrico Fermi: “There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”

Using that logic, Fasano said, makes it “a little sad” that this quest has ended.

“Searching for this particle has driven some really beautiful experiments and beautiful theory for the past 40 years,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Olympic athletes we will be seeing in the next few weeks. They will have spent all their time training to win a gold medal. When they do win that gold medal, now what?”

As is so often the case, the destination turns out to be the journey. But on the other hand, Fasano said there is still a bit of traveling to do.

“The game is not over. Scientists will still need to detail this unstable particle’s properties, what it decays into and how likely it is to decay.”

Fasano was more upbeat when asked about what the particle’s discovery will mean, even though he said he couldn’t formulate an exact prediction.

“Let me use a couple stories to illustrate my point,” he said. “In the late 1980s, scientists were doing work with charge-coupled devices. The idea was to build a better particle detector. But what happened is that these CCDs are now in the heart of every digital camera. Scientists didn’t set out to do that. The same thing happened with MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging). They weren’t really trying to come up with a new medical technique. They just wanted better physics, but it led to another development that’s become part of our daily lives.”

What scientists will be able to do because of the Higgs boson discovery is similarly cloudy, said Fasano, although he believes the way a “stunning” amount of data has been handled in the process will certainly have effects on the world of high-speed computing. What is clearer, he said, is the need for those scientists to have an open line of communication with the businesspeople who can help market their discoveries.

“That’s Monmouth College’s connection to this story,” said Fasano. “A while back, the National Science Foundation came up with a program that would help scientists start their own companies. But it hasn’t worked as well as they thought, and I think it’s because monetizing a discovery is not in the language or culture of scientists. Fostering communication between people with entrepreneurial skills and people with scientific skills is a really good idea, and that’s the main thrust behind our new Center for Science and Business at Monmouth College.”

Although a lot of dirt has been moved at its construction site, the center, which is scheduled for completion next March, does not feature a 17-mile tunnel like the Large Hadron Collider. But it will feature “connections” between faculty and students, and between departments and disciplines. Those are the kinds of connections, Fasano insists, that are vital for turning the scientific discoveries of today into the useful products and technologies of tomorrow.