Image: LHC magnets
Magnets like these stretch all the way around the Large Hadron Collider's 17-mile underground ring on the French-Swiss border.
updated 7/5/2012 7:10:32 PM ET 2012-07-05T23:10:32

A century after Albert Einstein came up with his theories of relativity, a constellation of Global Positioning System satellites is orbiting Earth, making practical use of his ground-breaking understanding of time.

If the discovery of the Higgs boson particle pans out, will even more mind-bending technologies result?

Theoretically, it's possible, says Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss; but practically, it's unlikely.

PHOTOS: When the World Went Higgs Boson Crazy

"If you could manipulate the Higgs field locally, you'd have a great 'Star Trek' device. You could make objects disappear. It'd be a great weapon, a great magic trick — if you could put things back together again," Krauss told Discovery News.

But how would you tweak the field, which is believed to be responsible for giving matter its substance?

"It's possible if you were able to heat up some region to something like a billion, billion, billion degrees, then in that region, the Higgs field would probably go away. Of course, by the time you heated things up to a billion, billion, billion degrees, everything would be gone anyway," Krauss said.

Consider the Star Trek transporter, a staple of science fiction for converting matter into energy, beaming it at the speed of light to a new locale, then reassembling the bits into their previous form.

Theoretically, manipulating a Higgs field would be one way to turn a person into energy and make them "disappear." The hard part would be putting them back together again.

PHOTOS: Rapturous Applause for Higgs Boson Scientists

"The only reason why the particles around us, and that make us up, are bound is because of the Higgs field," Krauss said. "They have mass. If the Higgs field were to go away, then the particles would all of a sudden move at the speed of light.

"If I could manipulate a Higgs field, that would be a first step in making a transporter, but the only way I know of to manipulate the Higgs field is to heat the whole thing up to such an incredible temperature that it's not surprising you'd disappear anyway," he said.

Time travel is another theoretical prospect.

"If you were able to manipulate a Higgs field over a large region so that it had energy, it would be gravitationally repulsive. It would cause that region of the universe to accelerate and move things apart faster than light, which is pretty neat," Krauss said.

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Scientists believe a similar scenario is what happened early in the universe's history.

"The existence of Higgs makes it clear that you can get something from nothing. A Higgs field can produce space and time itself," Krauss said. "But it's hard to imagine a Higgs technology."

ANALYSIS: Higgs Field Makes a Cameo on 'Eureka'

Turning Einstein's theories into practical use with GPS was different because engineers didn't have to manipulate gravity, just understand it.

GPS works by precisely measuring the time it takes for signals from various satellites to reach a receiver. The satellite clocks, however, freed from Earth's gravity, are physically moving faster than clocks on the planet's surface.

"Without the proper application of relativity, GPS would fail in its navigational functions within about two minutes," physicist Clifford Will, now with the University of Florida, wrote in an article titled "Einstein's Relativity and Everyday Life," posted on the American Physical Society website.

The beauty of the Higgs research, added Krauss, is that it just explains why we are here.

HOWSTUFFWORKS: What Exactly is The Higgs Boson?

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Interactive: Nightmares and dreams at the LHC

Physicist Michio Kaku discusses the worries and wonders that surround the Large Hadron Collider.

Explainer: What’s a hadron? Tour the particle zoo

  • Image: Elementary particles

    The Standard Model of particle physics is one of science's most successful theories, enabling the development of devices ranging from light bulbs, to microwave ovens and television, to quantum computing devices. The Standard Model is also one of the oddest theories, because it lays out a dizzying menagerie of hundreds of subatomic particles. At its heart are 16 types of elementary particles ... plus at least one more mysterious particle that scientists are spending billions of dollars to detect.

    Click on "Next" to get the full rundown.

  • Quarks

    Image: Quarks and gluons
    Berkeley Lab

    Six "flavors" of quarks have been detected: up and down, charm and strange, top and bottom. Quarks are almost always found in different combinations, bound together by gluons (more on those later). Particles built up from quarks and gluons are called hadrons. The Large Hadron Collider is so named because it's a large collider that smashes hadrons together.

    Three-quark combinations fit in the category of baryons. The best-known baryons are the proton (with two up quarks and one down quark) and the neutron (with two down quarks and one up quark).

    Particles that have one quark and one antiquark fit in the category of mesons. For example, the pion, or pi meson, contains an up quark and an anti-down quark.

  • Leptons

    Image: Single electrons in helium
    Brown University

    Six "flavors" of leptons have been detected: The negatively charged electron is the best-known lepton — along with its antimatter counterpart, the positron. This photo shows the path of single electrons passing through liquid helium, in an experiment devised by Brown University researchers.

    The muon is also negatively charged, but it's about 207 times as massive as the electron. ("Who ordered that?" physicist Isidor Rabi reportedly asked.) The negatively charged tau particle is even bigger — 3,477 times as massive as the electron — but it decays into other particles in less than a trillionth of a second.

    Each of those leptons has a neutrino associated with it: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino. Neutrinos interact only weakly with other particles, and they zip through our planet virtually without a trace. Physicists only recently determined that they have mass, but there's still a great deal of mystery surrounding the ghostly particles.

  • Force carriers

    Image: Graviton

    The Standard Model sets aside a category for particles that are associated with force fields. The effect of a field can be viewed as involving an exchange of such force-carrying particles.

    Four elementary force-carrying particles have been detected. The best-known force carrier is the photon — which plays a part in the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light. The gluon binds quarks together through the strong nuclear force. The weak nuclear force involves the exchange of W and Z bosons. The W boson can carry a positive or a negative charge, while the Z boson is neutral.

    If gravity could be incorporated into the Standard Model, the force-carrying particle would be called the graviton (shown here in an artist's depiction). However, gravitons have not yet been detected, and at least for now, such particles are not accounted for in the Standard Model.

  • Bosons vs. fermions

    Image: Bosons vs. fermions
    Rice Univ. via AIP

    All force-carrying particles are bosons, but not all bosons are force carriers. The difference has to do with a property known as particle spin. Particles with a fractional spin value (for example, electrons, protons and neutrons) are fermions. Two identical fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state. This is a property that keeps electrons from collapsing into a jumble, and thus makes chemical reactions possible.

    All particles with a whole-integer spin value are classified as bosons, and such particles can occupy the same quantum state even if they're identical. The photon is the best-known type of boson.

    Even atoms can be classified as fermions and bosons. This photo shows how atom clouds of lithium-7 (bosons) and lithium-6 (fermions) behave at low temperatures. The bosons collapse into a compact cloud, while the fermions can't squeeze that closely together.

  • The mysterious Higgs

    Image: Higgs as seen by CMS
    Ianna Osborne / CERN / CMS Collection

    The Higgs boson is the only particle predicted by the Standard Model that has not yet been detected. The Higgs is the main quarry for physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. This image is a simulation of the Higgs' signature as it might appear in one of the LHC's detectors.

    The Higgs boson, named after Scottish theorist Peter Higgs, is thought to be associated with a field that endows some particles (such as the weak nuclear force's W and Z bosons) with mass, while leaving the electromagnetic force's photons without mass.

    This Higgs field may have played a role at the very beginnings of the universe: Physicists believe that at the highest energies, the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces were unified, but something led to "electroweak symmetry breaking" as the infant cosmos cooled. That would be why the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force are distinct in the current universe. The Large Hadron Collider could shed new light on this mysterious Higgs mechanism.

  • Why so complicated?

    Image: Particle zoo
    Tim Jones / McDonald Observatory / HETDEX

    Hadrons and leptons? Baryons and mesons? Fermions and bosons? Sometimes it seems as if particle physicists set up these classifications just to keep outsiders totally confused. But for researchers, these occasionally overlapping categories are useful for figuring out how different types of particles interact with each other.

    In a sense, it's as if we've been talking about the game of chess but have gotten only to the point of naming the different pieces on the board: black pieces and white ones, pawns and knights, bishops and rooks, kings and queens. The real meaning of the game comes out when you start studying how the pieces perform and interact.

    To delve into the deeper meaning of the Standard Model, you can visit The Particle Adventure at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, "A Subatomic Venture" at CERN, or Particle Physics UK.


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