From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4 is Higgsdependence Day

Very early this morning, CERN*, the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherché Nucléaire (European Organization for Nuclear Research), announced a major discovery.  A major piece of the universal puzzle is now in place.  Scientists have observed an elementary particle that is consistent with predictions made by the Standard Model.  That elementary particle has been named the Higgs boson after Peter Higgs,** one of the theoretical physicists who predicted its existence.

What is the Higgs boson, and why is it important?

Every interaction (force) in nature is mediated by a gauge boson.  Here's an analogy: Suppose you want to interact with a friend, but you're both blindfolded and gagged.  You both have a large bag of Nerf® balls,  so you both start throwing.  You will know where your friend is when you get hit.  

There are only four fundamental interactions: electromagnetic, gravitational, weak, and strong.  The photon is the EM boson; the graviton is the gravitational boson; W-, W+, and Z0 are the weak bosons, and the gluons are the strong ones.  Where does the Higgs fit in?

The Standard Model, the theory behind the interactions excluding gravity, has been very successful at explaining most of nature.  It lacks the physics of dark matter, dark energy, and gravity, but physicists everywhere are working on expanding it through efforts such as string theory, superstring theory, and M-brane theory.  The model does predict the existence of the Higgs boson that causes all the other particles to have mass.

How does this happen?  Here's another analogy:  Imagine a large cocktail party of physicists. I walk into the room, and since I'm not well known, I can get through the room and to the bar rather quickly.  Then Peter Higgs walks in.  Being quite the celebrity, he attracts a large crowd of admirers. The interaction works similarly.  When an electron moves through the Higgs field§, it attracts some Higgs bosons, but when a up quark moves through the field, it attracts many more, and hence, has more mass.

Some additional notes:
In 1993, Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi wrote the book "The God Particle: If The Universe Is The Answer, What Is The Question?"  Lederman joked that "the publisher wouldn't let us call [the Higgs Boson] the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing."

CERN and its American counterpart Fermi Lab can be thought as as time machines; that is, when experiments are being done, scientists are in effect recreating the conditions of the early universe.  Observing the Higgs boson brings us back to within a picosecond or so after the Big Bang. [A picosecond is 10–12 seconds or one billionth of a second.]

Peter Higgs and the equation
describing the Higgs boson
Peter Higgs once suggested that the Higgs boson be named the ABEGHHK’tH "all the people who discovered it or rediscovered it," those being Phil Anderson, Robert Brout, Francois Englert, Gerald Guralnik, Dick Hagen, Peter Higgs, Tom Kibble, and Gerard ‘t Hooft.

Enjoy your 4th!

If you want to read more, some other discussions you might enjoy are The Higgs Boson, What Can We Do With The Higgs Boson? (courtesy of Matt Koutroulis), Physicists Have Found The Higgs Boson (courtesy of Frank Ybarra), Higgs Found (courtesy of my niece Kate Higgs), and Brian Greene Reacts To Today's CERN Announcement.

*You might be wondering why there is a C in the acronym for the lab.  In 1952, a committee was formed whose charge was to establish a physics research center. The committee's name was Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire.  When the institution officially came into being in 1954, the name was changed, but the acronym was not.  Another bit of trivia - the World Wide Web was invented at CERN.

**There is a persistent rumor in my family that the boson is named after my brother-in-law Gene Higgs.

I've adapted an analogy that I've seen and heard used by several sources, but with no attribution.

§My brother-in-law Gene also has a Higgs field next to his house.

No comments:

Post a Comment