Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What exactly is a Higgs?

When someone hears of the higgs search what do they think of?  Black holes maybe.  We all remember the rumors that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC, a particle accelerator that was built to find the Higgs particle and conduct many particle physics experiments) creating black holes and causing a panic.  Well don't worry you can always check the webcams.  Okay, so that's a joke, but it's amusing to me.  Really if you want to know if we are okay, you should check this site.  You can refresh it as much as you want.

But back to the point.

Origins (a National Science Foundation funded website committed to communicating advance science to the public) has a wonderful explanation on the Higgs Boson particle and field.  As they outline it was the question "What is mass?" that lead to the search for the Higgs particle/field.  We think of mass as being inherent to all matter, so how, why would we need something to explain mass?  Well in science we try to ask the questions that seem easy but turn out are pretty hard.  Try to answer the question what is mass.  You will probably come up with a circular answer.  For example:

What is mass?
Well we know that matter has mass.
Okay, what is matter?
Well matter is what makes up the universe.
And the universe is?
All matter and energy.
Well that brings us back to what is matter, or we could ask what is energy, but we would pretty much end up in circles again.

We try to explain these basic yet very complicated questions much in the same way people try to answer or communicate the idea of love.  It can be tangible in a way.  We could discuss the biological process of love, but that's not enough for a lot of people.  What causes the process to begin anyway, pheromones?  Not always.  Love is a complex interaction of emotions, which are not easily quantified.  But maybe that's a discussion for another day.

Back to the Higgs.

The Higgs particle was predicted by the standard model (and a man named Peter Higgs).  The standard model outlines our knowledge of particle physics.  It explains the particles we have discovered or predicted and the physical interactions in the universe.  How can things be predicted here?  Well that includes a lot of theory and math.  But I found a good explanation.

Victoria Martin, a former student of Peter Higgs and current researcher at the LHC, gave a wonderful description called the "A Layperson's Guide to the Higgs Boson."  Here are the highlights, slightly shortened.

"So what is this particle Higgs invented? We particle physicists investigate the properties of fundamental subatomic particles. Just as everything is made of molecules and those molecules are made of atoms, it turns out those atoms themselves are made of more fundamental particles: electrons, protons and neutrons. We believe the electron is a truly fundamental particle: it isn’t built up of smaller building blocks. However we know that the protons and neutrons are not fundamental; they consist of three even smaller particles we call “quarks”.

This is where Higgs’ particle comes in. We can’t figure out why the electron and the quarks have a mass; unless, somehow, they obtain a mass by interacting in a special way with the so-called Higgs field.  If this Higgs' explanation is correct and this Higgs field really exists and is present everywhere in the Universe, then one consequence is that the Higgs field can clump together and form a new kind of particle. This new particle is Higgs’ particle, which we call the Higgs boson. To see if Higgs’ theory is really true we will need to find some Higgs bosons and see if they really do interact with quarks, electrons and the other fundamental particles we know about."

I only have one final note.  On July 31st, 2012 this news was released, and I'll give you the punch line: 
"the ATLAS Experiment submitted a scientific paper describing the discovery of a new particle consistent with the Higgs Boson."  
 Now in science this is going to require a LOT more testing, but it is still pretty exciting.  Science is actually a really slow process sometimes, we try to be both optimistic about discoveries and cautious.  We have to keep out method in tact and repeat experiments including letting other teams of scientists repeat them.  Only after many people have concluded the same things can we truly feel safe making a revolutionary statement.  So I present that news with excitement and baited breath waiting for more testing.

I'm going to let it rest here.  Let me know if anything need clarification.

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