Monday, July 9, 2012

What's the Higgs boson, anyway?

Higgs boson. God particle. Mass. CERN. These words have been circulating tongues around the world the past week. Ever since the fourth of July, the science community has erupted in a flurry akin to tots at a toy store, and it has nothing to do with the independence of the United States of America.

Excited scientists, when the announcement was made.

You’ve probably heard that scientists at CERN have discovered a particle that closely resembles something called the “Higgs boson”. And you’ve probably heard that this is a very important discovery. You’ve also probably heard that some people call it the “God particle” (a name that makes me cringe every time I hear it if it isn’t said in humour, because it is misleading). 

But what is this Higgs boson, anyway? And why is it so important?  Especially since it forced Stephen Hawking to lose at least $200 in bets...  Well, think of it this way: you, me, your neighbour’s dog, those jeans you refuse to get rid of that don’t fit you anymore, the electronic device you’re using to read this, and everything else around you has mass. And the Higgs boson is behind the formation of mass, if the theory it pertains to is true. 

Basically, when a particle moves through something called the “Higgs field," the Higgs bosons clump around it. The more bosons that clump around it, the larger the mass of the particle. 

Source
One of my favourite analogies was given by a physicist named David Miller. Imagine a crowded room. If, suppose, Angelina Jolie walked into the room, fans would swarm around her. As more and more people joined the group, she would find it difficult to move across the room. If I entered the room, I would go virtually unnoticed. Only the welcoming host or a couple of people looking for a new friend would group around me, and I would be able to move across the room with ease. 

If Angelina and I were subatomic particles, she would have more mass than I. The people in the room would be the Higgs bosons, and the room itself would be the Higgs field. The more Higgs bosons stick to a particle, the more massive that particle is. 



Another way to look at it: if Justin Bieber and I entered a room full of teenaged girls, I would have absolutely no mass at all. 

Justin Bieber swarmed by fans in London
So, why is it called the “God particle”? Unfortunately, this is a misnomer. While the Higgs boson helps solidify a theory behind the workings of the universe, it by no means is an indicator of God, and still does not answer many of the big questions physicists are facing today. Some of those include the explanation of gravity and what dark matter is. Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman coined the term "The God Particle" for the title of his book about the indispensability of the Higgs. While it is apparently an excellent book despite the title, the media has latched onto it like Gollum to the One Ring. Lederman later semi-seriously defended the name by saying that the publisher wouldn't let him call it “The Goddamn Particle”. 

If the particle that was detected is indeed the Higgs, then we will definitely be one step closer to understanding the universe. This discovery is merely the beginning, albeit an amazing one. For now, however, the answer to the Life, the Universe, and Everything remains an elusive 42

I end with: