Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Nobel Prize and the Higgs Boson

As you may have read or heard, the Nobel Prize in physics was just announced, and it went to two of the physicists who came up with the idea of the Higgs boson (and the Higgs field). I wrote a post explaining this subject when the experiments were announced last year. Since we have many new readers on this page, I thought it might be useful to review what this Higgs business is about:

Scientists working with the atom smasher called the Large Hadron Collider in Europe announced in July of 2012 the 99% likelihood of the discovery of the Higgs boson. It was big news in the realm of the fundamental particles, forces, and energies that govern the universe (although it has few immediate practical applications.)

Physicist Leon Lederman, some years ago, was writing a popular book about the ideas behind the Higgs boson and he wanted to call it the "goddamn" particle (because it was so complex and abstract). The decencies of publishing required that he and his publisher change the name to the "God Particle" -- which became the name of his book and the name that stuck to the Higgs boson, somewhat to the regret of scientists.

The important idea behind the particle is the Higgs field, which is a kind of low-level universal energy that gives particles their property of MASS. Mass, in turn, is what then allows particles to attract each other, clump together, and make stars, planets, and Facebook readers. The Higgs boson is evidence that the Higgs Field is real. (The term boson by the way is not a reference to a 1950's TV clown, but to Satyendra Nath Bose, an Indian-born mathematical physicist, after whom a whole class of particles is named.)

The Higgs boson shows itself only under very energetic conditions -- it existed when the universe was extremely young and hot, soon after the Big Bang. This is why it takes very energetic collisions in a large atom smashers to produce the particle today and why it took so long for us to gather evidence of its existence. If the Higgs boson can be observed in our atom smashers, it's pretty good proof that there is a Higgs field in the universe. That, in turn, is one more powerful supporting "pier" for the "standard model" of particles and forces that underlies our understanding of the natural world.

Professor Peter Higgs -- after whom the field and particle are named -- is 84 years old and so there was a lot of (appropriate) pressure in physics to make sure he receives the Nobel Prize now. (The Nobel committee cannot, by the rules of the prize, give it to anyone posthumously.)

For further non-technical introductions to Higgs bosons, I recommend:

A cartoon animation: Higgs Boson Explained:

An analogy for Higgs Field using everyday materials with science writer Ian Sample:

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