With the reported discovery of the fabled “Higgs Boson” this week, many people are no doubt left thinking a few things, namely; “Wow, this will change science!” and probably also “So what’s a Higgs Boson anyway?”. But don’t fret ladies and gentleman; there is honestly no reason why the average person should understand what is a rather complicated bit of theoretic physics. But if you’re intrigued by the world of physics even half as much as myself, you’ll no doubt be wanting someone to explain this to you in a straightforward or at least non-perplexing way. I’ll do my best.
First off, this particle is “fundamental”. A fundamental particle is essentially a particle that cannot be broken up into simpler parts, meaning they make up the base building blocks of our Universe. This category is made of quarks (which assemble to form protons and neutrons), leptons (a collective term including electrons and neutrinos), antiparticles (oppositely charged versions of particles), gauge bosons (such as the photonic light particles; essentially particles that transmit atomic forces) and Higgs bosons. The concept of a boson is quite complex, as it relies on a good understanding of quantum physics; a boson is a subatomic particle with integer spin, which essentially act as force “carriers” or “allowers”. Quite frankly, I won’t attempt to explain what it is to be a boson any further, as to explain “spin” would require knowledge of angular momentum and intrinsic degrees of freedom (best left unexplained; this article is going to be long and convoluted enough as it is…)
Before I explain the particle itself, it’s certainly worth noting the man who made this discovery initially possible; Mr Peter Higgs, an English (I’m proud to say) Physicist who with the help of others proposed the existence of the particle and the mechanism by which it operates in 1964. The particle has since been named after Higgs.
This Higgs Boson (often coined the “God Particle”; a phrase both I and the scientific world disapprove of due to its over exaggeration and potentially hurtful religious connotations) comes about from the formation of the “Standard Model” a proposal of the model of fundamental particles in our Universe. The prior model to this seemed to mathematically forbid the fundamental particles from having mass (an obvious absurdity, as if true nothing would have mass). To solve this problem, the idea of the “Higgs Field” came about; the idea that a field of particles exist all across the Universe, and somehow grant mass to only some types of particle.
The currently followed “Standard model” was set up in the 70’s with the underlying concept that some bosonic particle exists which gives other particles mass. Search for this particle began in the 80’s, but really started to gain momentum during between 1998 and 2008 when the well publicised “Large Hadron Collider”, the world’s largest particle accelerator, was built near Geneva under the France-Switzerland border. This LHC was built primarily for detection of the Higgs boson and its properties; it is essentially a huge underground ring in which hadrons (like protons and neutrons) are accelerated to unimaginable speeds before being smashed together, then scientists take a look at the resulting shrapnel (perhaps a slight oversimplification).
To help understand what’s going on, the above diagram shows very roughly the idea behind the mass mechanism. The Higgs field exists everywhere, even in the empty space found inside atoms. Particles with mass (like protons, neutrons, electrons, and as a result all the atoms that make up me and you) are given the mass due to their interaction with the Higgs field (shown here by the particles being restricted; purely to imply an interaction with each particle). Particle without mass like photons (the energy packets that make up light and other such forms of electromagnetic radiation) pass freely through the Higgs field, not interacting with or being restricted by it, and as a result having no mass.
This week in fact CERN has reported a “5-Sigma” confidence level for the existence of a newly found bosonic particle which seems to follow the properties of the proposed Higgs boson – a 5-sigma confidence level being the precedent by which new theories can be “validated”, as a 5-sigma confidence means there is less than a 1 in 3.5 million chance that the results found were purely due to random chance, or put differently, there is a 99.99994% certainty that the results found are significant.
This is of course exciting for the scientific world, and for the human race as a whole; over the past 40 years we assumed a scientific “standard model”, and eventually developed what is arguably the most complex piece of machinery every conceived to prove the validity of this standard model. I for one think it’s amazing that we are even now making such huge scientific discoveries, and couldn’t be happier for Mr Peter Higgs, who this week at the age of 83 was validated in his 48 year search for a theory of how our Universe works.