“For more than three decades, the Higgs has been physicists’ version of King Arthur’s Holy Grail, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, Captain Ahab’s Moby Dick. It’s been an obsession, a fixation, an addiction to an idea that almost every expert believed just had to be true.”
I should be preparing for labs tomorrow and not thinking about the Higgs. But since everyone is having an opinion piece, I thought i write something on the higgs particles as well. That’s right, its the Higg’s Particle, and not “the god Particle”.
So some of the interesting questions from my non-physicist friends about Higgs Bosons are: what is it? What is the point of its discovery? How can we use it? How does it make any difference to my life and my health? Will you now be able to cure cancer? Can we build wormholes? Can you make man fly? Will it mean the end of physics? Where did that $6.19 Billion go? Why did it cost that much? and the list goes on…
So, they must all be commended for their curiosity and their aggressive demand for answers, after all it is the taxpayer who is paying for this research and it is only a natural to question about the implications of the discovery.
So what is it? Well it is a form of a boson. So what is a boson, i hear you say. To properly explain this let me introduce a new fundamental property of all matter, namely, the quantum spin number. This is a special number like the electron charge which defines the positive or negative charge of a particle. In the case of a quantum spin, as far as we know it can never be negative. All particles can have a quantum spin associated with them. They can be integer values, like zero, one or two, or they can come in half integer spin values such as 1/2, 3/2 and so on. We can then divide the particles in the universe into two camps, the camp of fermions and the camp of bosons. Fermionic particles have half-integer spin and examples of them are particles such as electrons, neutrinos, quarks etc. On the other hand, Bosons, as i am sure you have already figured it out, are integer spins and have spin values of zero, one or two. The particles that mediate the fundamental forces such as photons have a spin of one, and the Higgs has a spin of zero. Believe it or not the Higgs is the first ever particle known to man that has a spin of zero!!! That is big. The other spin value of two has not yet been discovered, and belongs to the theoretical particle called graviton. Do you know what force the graviton mediates?
So now we know what a boson is. We now need to explain the Higgs Boson. The Higgs is best explained by a very nice example that was used to explain to me what it was. I will relate that to you. Imagine a room packed with ordinary people. Then imagine if a celebrity walks through. Naturally, the ordinary people will start to surround the poor celebrity. Conversely, if a ordinary person was to enter the room, he or she will pass through the room without drawing little or no attention at all. This is exactly the Higgs field giving mass to particles. If the normal people in the room are the Higgs bosons, then the celebtrity is a massive particle that gains it mass by the Higgs particles swarming it. Alternatively, a light particle like a photon doesn’t interact with the Higgs particles at all therefore, like an ordinary person, will not be swarmed by the Higgs particles, thus a photon is massless. Isn’t this a familiar story. Who said physics had no relation to real life!
So the next question is, what is the point of this discovery? Well it tells us something very fundamental about reality. No, its got nothing to do with celebrities. Namely, that all the mass is a result of particles interacting with the Higgs Field. This is a question that puzzled Newton, and it is the same problem that Einstein was unable to answer, where does mass come from? We now have an answer. How wonderful and beautiful this is!
Next Question, How can we use it? Well, i don’t really know. I did tell a friend that if we could use the Higgs field, we could change the mass of objects. But i don’t really know. Probably best if i leave that answer open to all to discuss or better yet, to the experts.
Next Question, How does it make any difference to my life and my health? Will it be able to cure cancel? Once again, the discovery of special relativity did not have obvious applications, though now, without it our GPS systems would not work not to mention all those sci fi shows it spewed out. :) But seriously, its not like the Higgs will have healing powers. A discovery brings new discoveries. I am sure this is just the start to research into the Higgs. As for curing cancer. No comment!
Can we build wormholes? Well, no, but a trekkie can dream!
Can you make me fly? I don’t have energy to answer that one, but the short answer is no.
Will it mean the end of physics?… it means the start of physics! Start of a new frontier of research. The career of a researcher is never over! There is always something else to be discovered and generally a new discovery begets a new discovery. Bored of a your old job, why not become a researcher and be never bored for life… well except for when you’re waiting for inspiration.
The next question is really important. Why did it cost so much ,where did all that billions of dollars go? Well, you have to understand that the experiment is trying to generate energies that have never been reached before by man. That required employment of lots of engineers, scientists, admin staff and so on. It required the development of new technologies in commuting, engineering, vacuum -generation, magnets, and the list goes on. It required the building of a special 27km long circular tunnel underground. This all costs money.
I think it is rather amazing and saying a lot about mankind, the lengths as a society we are willing to go for the pursuit of knowledge. I think, as we stand on the precipice of potential wars, it is rather comforting to know that there is still some nobility left in us.
Finally, i am attaching links to some fascinating photos, that may be enjoyed by all.
- The Fantastic Machine that found the Higgs Boson, theAtlantic.com
- The Large Hadron Collider, Photo Essay, TIME
If you have further questions you can ask, or enjoy researching yourself, on the following site: