Posted Tuesday, July 3, 2012, at 6:50 PM
Tomorrow at 3 a.m. EST, our understanding of the universe is likely to change. That’s when physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, just over the border from France, will announce the latest results of the decades-long search for a fundamental particle called the Higgs boson—and the word on the street is that they’ve found it (or, at least, something very much fitting the bill).
But why should anyone without an advanced degree in particle physics stay up late to catch the official news? Perhaps this reason won’t be convincing enough for some, but if researchers have indeed discovered the Higgs, the find represents the most important step forward in our species’ understanding of the basic structure of our universe—and ourselves—since the development of the Standard Model in the 1970s. How could you possibly sleep with something like that going on?
Anyway, here’s the part where I’m supposed to explain what, exactly, the Higgs boson and the associated Higgs field actually are. If the theory is correct, interacting with the Higgs field is what gives particles like protons and neutrons (and eventually, atoms, molecules, and whatever screen you’re reading this on) their mass. Oh, and the Higgs particle is just an excited quantum of that field that physicists with massive particle colliders may be able to coax out.
Not clear enough? Maybe one of the fascinating and strange variety of analogies science popularizers have evoked over the past few days will do the trick. I’ve grouped them into a few categories for convenience.
This genre, which usually involves a pristine object like a pearl moving through some kind of syrupy substance, is by far the most popular kind of analogy trotted out. Examples include cotton candy, molasses, a canteen tray full of sugar, and, less sweetly, curds forming in spoiled milk—which refers to the production of a single particle from the more pervasive field.
As it turns out, however, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, the particle’s namesake, actually doesn’t care for these viscous examples. He prefers a more social explanation.
Higgs tells PhysicsWorld.com that his favorite image was created by the physicist David Miller, who saw the mechanism reflected in current British politics. Physics World’s Matin Durrani writes, “Miller famously likened the boson to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher moving through a crowded room, gaining mass as other people congregate around her.”
Burton DeWilde, a friend of mine who is a Ph.D. candidate in physics, relayed another variation on this theme:
Imagine a room full of physicists. Suddenly Einstein enters and attempts to cross the room, but the star-struck physicists cluster around him and impede his movements, effectively increasing his mass. Now imagine that I enter the room. As a lowly grad student, nobody wants to interact with me, so I pass through the physicists relatively unimpeded—no effective mass for me! Lastly, imagine that somebody whispers a rumor, causing the physicists to cluster together excitedly on their own.
In this analogy, the room full of physicists represents the Higgs field in space, Einstein represents a particle with high mass, I represent a particle with low mass (or no mass), and a cluster of physicists represents an excitation of the field, which is effectively a Higgs boson.
In the Air
A final example—rather elegant in its simplicity—is Rutgers professor Matt Strassler’s elaborate likening of the Higgs field to the air.
What is the Higgs field, and how should we conceive of it? It is as invisible to us, and as unnoticed by us, as air is to a child, or water to a fish; in fact even more so, because although we learn, as we grow up, to become conscious of the flow of air over our bodies, as detected by our sense of touch, none of our senses provide us with any access to the Higgs field.
So which analogy captures the true nature of the Higgs field best? A hard-core physicist would tell you that only mathematics could do that. The themes on display in the categories may have more to do with the lives of scientists—all sugary coffee and conferences—than the fundamental nature of reality. But even a basic understanding of the Higgs is useful, if only to comprehend why some of your neighbors or colleagues might be looking a little bleary-eyed the morning of the 4th of July, before a single American-brewed beer has been opened.
If you want to dive further into the molasses vat, check out the excellent (and fun!) explanatory video from PHD Comics, below. And if you really want to watch the live-stream from CERN, click here.