Saying Mass With The Higgs Boson

With the recent breakthrough in the search for the mysterious Higgs Boson, the ‘God particle’, thousands of news articles have attempted to digest the extremely complex physics involved and turn it into something resembling readable English. Unfortunately, that’s quite difficult, and very few have been successful. I’ll be honest here – I don’t really understand it, and unless you’re Peter Higgs on a good day, you probably don’t either.

However, I do know enough to understand some bad jokes about it. My favourite? ‘The Higgs Boson walks into a Catholic church. The priest says, ‘What are you doing here?’ and good old Higgs Boson replies, ‘Well – you can’t have mass without me!’

Fortunately for all of us who are not theoretical physicists, that joke actually explains the basic idea of the Higgs Boson quite well. We generally take it for granted that everything has substance, but, as always, when you get down to the subatomic level, things get fucking weird. Why do I weigh something rather than nothing at all? (Probably because I am not a supermodel, for starters). To explain this conundrum, in the 1960s English physicist Peter Higgs proposed the addition of a special subatomic particle to the Standard Model (yes, capitalisation necessary) of particle physics. Until now, the Higgs Boson was the last missing cornerstone of the Standard Model. If the Higgs Boson particle were to exist, as the theory goes, it would be the simplest way to explain why elementary particles such as electrons actually have mass. Without mass, they would just fly around the cosmos at the speed of light. So, subatomic particles gain mass through interacting with the Higgs field, and voilà, atoms form, molecules join together, and the world exists.

Given the theory’s importance to physics, a lot of time and money has been invested in the search for this elusive particle. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland was built with an aim to find the Higgs Boson – it’s the biggest particle accelerator in the world, and is the most amazing, complex thing ever built for scientific research. It works by spinning particles around its 27km-length track really fast – like a tiny, tiny Formula 1 (but infinitely more useful and interesting). Before the LHC, the Higgs Boson would have been impossible to find, because the particle decays almost immediately after it has formed. Only a high-energy particle accelerator like the LHC has even the hope of observing evidence of its existence.

This latest discovery suggests that all the investment into the LHC is beginning to pay off.  On July 4th, researchers and scientists made the announcement that they had found a ‘Higgs Boson-like particle’. True to the scientific method, they’re being a bit vague and not making any definitive statements about it yet. The Director General of CERN has stated “As a layman, I think we have it”, but others are being a little more hesitant. Presumably also true to the scientific method, the PowerPoint presentation of the official announcement was all in Comic Sans. Why they chose to use the most universally reviled font in the world is beyond me, but I assume they were hoping to reach the coveted kindergarten and Sunday school demographic. (‘How can it be hard for them to understand now? Look how fun it looks! Pass me that floppy disk!’)

However, whatever language (or font) the researchers use, they’re making it pretty clear that we’re on the right track. It’s almost certain that Peter Higgs is going to be winning a Nobel Prize. The sticky question is, who else will share it with him? One Nobel Prize can only be awarded to a maximum of three people. But, with 50 years of work and countless contributors, it’s almost impossible to say definitively who ‘deserves’ those two extra spots. Five other contributors came up with similar theories and published papers almost simultaneously to Higgs back in the 60s; while Higgs has given the particle his name, many others have produced incredibly important research for the project. One prominent researcher, Robert Brout, sadly passed away last year; there are still dozens, if not more, of intelligent and deserving scientists vying for the Nobel Prize.

Not all scientists have won from this discovery, however. The famed Stephen Hawking had a $100 bet going with fellow physicist Gordon Kane that the Higgs Boson wouldn’t be found. He has gracefully accepted that he has lost, which is a pretty good indicator of how important this discovery is. Fortunately with the US economy being completely fucked, the exchange rate won’t actually cost him very much. That’s probably why he’s happily stated that he doesn’t mind he’s lost the bet at all – even he reckons that the discovery is Nobel Prize material, no question.

It’s not entirely clear what the discovery means for future research yet. When scientists like Franklin and Galvani discovered electricity, they had no idea how fundamentally it would come to change our world. The discovery of the Higgs Boson hasn’t affected your day-to-day life in any practical way yet – but, give it 100 years, and we might look back on these weeks as the time that the world changed forever.

Hilary Bowman

The author Hilary Bowman

Leave a Response