Earlier this week, the Higgs boson was discovered – or at least, we’re almost certain it was discovered. In the science community, this is being seen as one of the biggest breakthroughs in history, but it’s clear that laypeople are feeling out of the loop. The comments on many articles are unfortunately “the more I learn about this, the more confused I become about it.” So just what is the Higgs boson, why is its discovery important, and why should we care? The simple answers are below.
What is it?
For Your Understanding
So what exactly is the Higgs boson? English science writer Ian Sample from the Guardian gave the best simplified explanation I could find on the subject, with a simple video involving golf balls and sugar.
Coupled with Ian Sample’s video, here’s one from exactly a year ago that will help make it understood. Don Lincoln explains essentially the same thing with a different analogy, and explains some confusion with the media. These are very informative videos.
I remember seeing the BBC Horizon documentary earlier this year called “The Hunt for Higgs,” in which several physicists talked about the experiments being conducted at CERN, and their evolving opinions on whether or not they believe the Higgs boson really exists. It was very interesting, and I came away with the impression (as many others did in the video) that it actually probably doesn’t exist. So I was quite surprised to hear the news.
Just to be clear… from my understanding, there is about a one-in-trillion chance that the scientists are wrong, and that we actually have not found the Higgs boson. But these researchers have a huge amount of data to support their findings, and this is absolutely not one of those cases where the researchers make commotion about a single research article, like when NASA produced a paper on arsenic-based life which should never have been published. In other words, the odds are very good that the Higgs boson has been found. So we can probably start rewriting those textbooks now.
More or Less Confusing?
Obviously understanding the intricacies of each aspect of the Higgs boson may be difficult, but it shouldn’t be too hard to understand the gist of it. So here is my simplified explanation for those who hate watching videos.
We don’t usually think of gravity as a “field,” but let’s do just that for a moment. If you stand in your house, you don’t fall to the centre of the Earth (or else you wouldn’t be reading this). But if you fall from the sky (i.e., sky-diving) then will fall towards the centre of the Earth – until you hit the ground, which would stop you just like if you were in your house. Falling into a pool won’t make you plummet like falling from the sky, but you will gradually descend until something stops you (such as the bottom of the pool).
So just like our gravity field – which explains why falling in water is slower than in air – there are quantum fields, which have much smaller particles. The difference with quantum fields is that they’re too small for us to perceive, whereas we can observe gravity with something as simple as balloons and tennis balls. As Wikipedia says, “a field may be thought of as extending throughout the whole of space,” and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy talks about quantum fields as follows:
Quantum Field Theory (QFT) is the mathematical and conceptual framework for contemporary elementary particle physics. Since the very beginning of western philosophy reflections about the material world which go beyond the directly observable play a central role in philosophy.
[. . .] It has always been a point of debate what the fundamental characteristics of the material world are. Is everything constantly changing or are there certain permanent features? What is basic and what is merely a matter of perspective and appearance?
In the course of time various answers have been given and conflicting views have often been alternating in their predominance.
The quantum field we’re talking about is called the Higgs field (made up of particles called Higgs bosons). In what’s known as the “Standard Model” of particle physics – the view we currently subscribe to – the Higgs field explains why other elementary particles have mass. Wikipedia has a good general paragraph on the Standard Model:
The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory concerning the electromagnetic, weak, and strong nuclear interactions, which mediate the dynamics of the known subatomic particles. Developed throughout the mid to late 20th century, the current formulation was finalized in the mid 1970s upon experimental confirmation of the existence of quarks. Since then, discoveries of the bottom quark (1977), the top quark (1995), and the tau neutrino (2000) have given further credence to the Standard Model. Because of its success in explaining a wide variety of experimental results, the Standard Model is sometimes regarded as a “theory of almost everything.”
What this paragraph indicates is that historically speaking, scientists already had a good idea of how particle physics worked. You can tell this by the fact that everything Don Lincoln (video #2) said was accurate, despite saying it a year before the discovery. But we still needed the discovery to be made, because the way science works is through evidence. This is a big problem in modern physics research – we don’t have robust evidence for some of the brilliant ideas that we come up with, so we must be humble in proceeding with our explanations (which scientists, I believe, are very good at doing in general). But as this discovery has shown, it’s not a waste of time to pursue such seemingly difficult tasks.
Indeed, the reason it took so long to find, despite an unbelievable amount of searching, is because the Higgs boson exists for only a tiny fraction of a second. Yet, it’s such a fundamental part of our understanding of how we came to exist that it was called the “God Particle” in a book by Leon M. Lederman in 1993. That name has largely stuck, but many scientists insist that such a name evokes unnecessary hyperbole.
Why is it Important?
Why is this so important? University of Melbourne researcher Martin White puts it this way: “What this thing really does is explain why things have mass. Without the Higgs boson, or something like it, nothing would have mass – we wouldn’t have galaxies, we wouldn’t have atoms.” He says that particles gain mass by interacting with the Higgs field. “We now have a substantial piece of the puzzle solved,” he said, “and it will give us clues as to how to solve the rest of it.”
Rob McPherson from the University of Victoria says that it’s “an indication that the last 45 years of particle physics has been on the right track, and now we hope to look beyond the standard model into why particles gain mass. This may be observations of supersymmetry, other dimensions, [and other] theories that were developed to go beyond the Higgs boson.”
University of Toronto physics professor Pekka Sinervo said that our current understanding has had two significant holes in them since it was first introduced over three decades ago. The first one (the top quark) was discovered around 17 years ago. This discovery essentially fills that second hole in our understanding, and “completes a picture that we get from the standard model.” But many researchers say that we probably won’t be able to fully appreciate the discovery for at least a few years.
The process of identifying all the properties of the Higgs boson particle could take some time, according to European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer.
“You have to pin down… if everything is according to expectation, or if it’s a bit different,” Professor Heuer said. “If it’s a bit different, then the physics will be completely different, and that will take a few years, unfortunately. But that’s science.”
But Heuer said the general public was becoming accustomed to the steady pace of scientific experimentation. “People see… that you don’t get a result from today to tomorrow, (and) it takes a lot of time and a lot of stamina to develop methods and come up with an experiment,” he said.
The Bottom Line
If you’re not convinced that this discovery is substantial, it’s likely that you don’t know how science works. Queen’s University physicist Philippe Di Stefano argues that the discovery is substantial, despite the fact that we may not have practical applications for it right away. This is fundamentally an issue of applied vs. pure research. “For instance,” Di Stefano says, “in the 1930s, Carl Anderson discovered anti-matter, and now anti-matter plays a very very large role in positron emission tomography (PET), and PET scans are really widely used nowadays in medicine, so this is a very important application to the lives of many many people.”
So even if we can’t find a use for it now, the Higgs boson has the power to explain; the power to strengthen earlier theories about how the world fundamentally works. But the exciting thing is that this is only the beginning.