Esteemed Prof. Disbrow gives us the lowdown on the highbrow Higgs particle.
About this same time of year, back in 2012, the world of particle physics was abuzz with whispers that the folks at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Cern, on the French-Swiss border in Europe, were about to announce a major discovery.
And, a few weeks later, on July 4, 2012, that’s exactly what they did.
They had, with 99.9999 percent certainty, discovered the long-theorized “Higgs” particle. (This level of certainty is known as “5 Sigma,” and it’s the level of certainty required before a team will, tentatively, announce that it has made an actual discovery.)
Still, even with that level of certainty, the team at Cern are waiting until they can run even more experiments in 2015 before they definitively label the discovery “The Higgs particle.” For the purposes of this article, however, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, yeah, they found it.
What’s a Higgs Particle?
The Higgs is a particle that was theorized by Peter Higgs back in 1964. He (and several others, actually) came up with the idea to fill in a gap in the standard model of physics. The standard model basically details the particles and forces that make up the universe and everything in it.
Over the years, the standard model has been wildly successful, but at the time, this model had no way to explain how particles (electrons, quarks, protons, etc.) actually get their mass. The Higgs particle and Higgs Field were a way of explaining this.
How Does It “Work”?
OK, listen, everything about this is going to sound crazy. But if there’s one thing science has revealed over the years, it’s that nature is under no obligation to make sense to us. Nature is what it is, and we have to follow where the facts and experiment lead us. So, without going too deeply down the rabbit hole, here’s a brief description of what all this means.
Scientists postulate that spread everywhere throughout our universe is a “fog” that’s now known as the “Higgs Field”. This field is invisible and incredibly difficult to detect. This field is everywhere and it permeates everything in the universe. We move through it constantly, without even realizing it’s there.
Since this field is everywhere, everything is interacting with it to some degree. It’s the strength of these interactions, between the Higgs Field and the particles in it, that gives those particles their mass. The more intense the interaction, the more mass a particle has.
(And, to answer the earlier question, the Higgs Particle is a particle that pops into existence when there a particularly intense interaction with the Higgs Field. The particle got all the press, because it’s direct evidence that the field exists. But, really, the field is where the action is.)
To help visualize this, let’s scale up to a human point of reference: a political fundraiser. Let’s say you’re hosting a fundraiser for your candidate and a couple hundred people show up, packing your modest home to the walls. Those people represent the Higgs Field. They are everywhere in your house, and you can’t move without bumping into someone.
And, given that you are the person hosting this fundraiser, quite a few people there want to meet you, and shake your hand to thank you for your work. The interactions are slow, but meaningful; the equivalent of a small amount of mass for an elementary particle.
But, now, in through the front door comes the candidate herself. As she moves through the crowd, everyone wants something from her: a handshake, an autograph, a deep conversation about some policy point...the interactions come fast and furious, and the candidate no sooner steps away from one interaction when another person steps up to start a new one. The candidate is the equivalent of a particle with a large amount of mass trying to move through the Higgs Field.
Why is this important? Well, besides simply being an amazing achievement for humanity, every time we’ve made a discovery of this type, civilization has taken a huge leap forward. For example: electricity.
You see, electricity and magnetism both come from interactions with a very similar, but different, field (the “electroweak” field) that also permeates the universe. Just think how different the world was before we learned how to harness those two fundamental forces of nature!
Imagine a time, just decades from now, where we’ve learned to control the mass of things! Suddenly, things like deflecting killer asteroids and colonizing the solar system become very possible.
These things are just crazy science fiction ideas now—but who would have thought street lights, television and putting a man on the moon could have come from just understanding how electricity worked?
The future just got a lot more exciting.