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Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Straight Dope

I recently saw a special on the Large Hadron Collider, which, among other things, hopes to find evidence of the "God particle." Since physics is not my strong suit, I've tried to understand this particle through the library and the Web, but everything I find makes my eyes glaze over. Cecil, please explain the God particle in layman's terms.

J.S., Palatine, Ill.

Some people find God in church, some in the great outdoors, but it takes truly transcendent geekiness to find divinity in the Large Hadron Collider.

Your question takes us to the strange world of quantum physics, where most folks find almost nothing makes intuitive sense, and which even I find is best grasped with the aid of some good Cabernet. For years physicists have sought a Theory of Everything that would explain how all the particles and forces in the universe interact to produce the workaday world. So far they've made some progress: The so-called Standard Model explains the relationship between three of the four fundamental forces, namely electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force (holds atomic nuclei together), and the weak nuclear force (has to do with radioactivity). However, the Standard Model leaves out that fourth force, gravity – a nontrifling omission – and hasn't been significantly revised since the heyday of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The God particle and the Large Hadron Collider are an attempt to get things off the dime.

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