What's a Higgs Boson, What's Being Announced Tomorrow, and What's Next

By Veronique Greenwood | July 3, 2012 2:48 pm

July 4th is the big day! And not only because of fireworks. It’s the day of a press conference at which it is widely anticipated that CERN (the giant European particle physics laboratory) will announce that the Higgs boson—that much-touted particle needed to make the Standard Model of Physics complete—has been found at the Large Hadron Collider. Or at least, that something that looks very much like it has been observed.

What’s the Higgs, you say? You’ve been living under a rock? Well, here is the best explanation we’ve seen of what the Higgs is and why it’s important, courtesy The Guardian’s Ian Sample:

Normally, we would not be writing anything suggesting the Higgs had been found until the proof was in our hot little hands. Rumors schrumors, we say—many a CERN press conference has ended in disappointment. But this morning, Kate Travis, an editor at ScienceNews, found a leaked CERN video in which a spokesperson all but announces the discovery of a new particle.

“We have quite strong evidence that there’s something there,” Joe Incandela, the spokesperson for the relevant LHC experiment, says on the (now-removed) video, which you can see reposted here. “Its properties are still going to take us a little bit of time. But we can see that it decays to two photons, for example, which tells us it’s a boson, it’s a particle with integer spin. And we know its mass is roughly 100 times the mass of the proton. And this is very significant. This is the most massive such particle that exists, if we confirm all of this, which I think we will.” That sounds very much like the the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model, the theory of subatomic particles assembled by physicists in the 20th century.

CERN’s media office has stated that the leaked video is just one of several videos made to reflect several different scenarios, and it may be that this video will not be the one that is played at the conference tomorrow. Make of that what you will. The bloggers of Discover’s Cosmic Variance who are attending the affair will be live-blogging here, starting at 3 am Eastern time.

But whatever is officially announced tomorrow, it now seems likely that it will be significant news. The Higgs has been the focus of a tremendous amount of hype, for better—it’s safe to that particle physics was not exactly dinner table conversation before people started calling the Higgs “the God Particle”—or for worse. The Higgs discovery, if that is indeed what they are announcing, will cement a great deal of 20th-century physics work and validate the Standard Model of Physics, but it will also be the end of an era.

As one physicist said to me a few minutes ago, “unless it has some very weird properties, it’s like the closing of a book, rather than an opening. We’ve done that–we’ve dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s. But it doesn’t open new vistas. It’s the end of something. We’re not going to build another accelerator.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Top Posts
  • JazzZyx

    Quantum Musings (of an autistic child)

    …it’s not an original idea,
    postulating that gravity
    spread across the multiverse
    explains its feeble force
    it made sense to him
    when he read it in Discovery Magazine
    … but then why are not the other forces
    trans-space/time/dimensional too?

    hey, maybe gravity is God’s hand
    holding it all together …
    or God’s hyperbolic, trans-dimensional joke
    on old ladies with saggy boobs?

    …That’s what grandma says…

    the autistic boy
    pondered these things
    while walking in the drizzly rain
    … oh no! ten minutes late to school

    … hmmmm….
    the similarity of photons and electrons
    … and how does gamma radiation
    fit into the equation?

    “Ryan! …are you with us?” queries the TLC Aid…

    “…star light, star bright…
    first star I see tonight
    I wish I may, I wish I might
    have this wish I wish tonight…”

    … photon, electron, positron, beta particle
    all seem interchangeable
    only with different origins
    … and all are part of the electromagnetic spectrum …

    Can anyone shed some light on this?

    … “self absorption and getting lost
    in his cloistered quantum world
    aids and abets his social ineptitude”
    declares the Special Ed. Teacher at TLC

    …. or perhaps the alternate universes with which we co-exist
    ARE the yin to our yang
    and expressed as the attractive force of gravity
    that holds our universes together

    … as such, this attractive force
    would permeate the multiverse
    with gravity most focused
    where the matter of the infinite universes overlap

    … does this make at least as much sense
    as mythical ether?
    the dark energy and matter
    of quantum mysticism

    …. ah! I see the light! …

    the boy waves his hands
    with changing amplitude and frequency
    vibrating the cloud of dust motes ablaze
    from photons cascading through the window pane

    … and what about dark energy and matter
    we cannot perceive by any known means
    that quantum physicists believe in
    with religious fervor?

    … faith in string theory
    which in turn gives birth to the multiverse,
    seem as logically consistent
    as the Flying Spaghetti Monster … or the Holy Trinity

    “I am mightier than gravity!”
    blurts the autistic child
    as he picks up a crayon

    … if I am stronger than gravity
    how can IT hold the universe together?
    … because IT never gives up …
    the trans-universal tortoise to the quantum electromagnetic hare

    … Ryan’s pet theory…
    the wave function itself imparts mass
    hence gravity to matter.
    not the God-like boson particle

    ..dark energy and dark matter
    …ephemeral as the neither world
    …so ya gotta read between the lines…
    …. God’s domain in the empty spaces

    … does the autistic child’s musing …
    God, Multiverse, Holy Trinity, Flying Spaghetti Monster
    in the same breath offend you?
    …tread lightly in your rebuttal …

    the autistic child may start headbanging
    ..talk softly
    …lightly hold his hand
    ….smile as you agree

  • Julie Smith

    If the Higgs Boson is the base particle they are looking for, how can it decay into smaller and smaller particles? And if the boson doesn’t last very long, how can the Higgs field exist? Geesh. Worst explanation ever.

  • Meg

    Well…it’s not a bad explanation. But there is one major problem with it: the Higgs field is not “made up of” Higgs bosons. A field is just a field–most people use the analogy of molasses, rather than sugar, which is only slightly better than the sugar analogy.

    My (admittedly very hazy) understanding is that the Higgs boson is actually a fluctuation in the Higgs field caused, in this case, by two protons colliding at the mind-boggling speeds achievable by the LHC. Basically, this high-energy event tweaks the otherwise uniform Higgs field in a small region. We perceive that fluctuation as a particle, and it only lasts a very short time (think of it either as the Higgs field settling down quickly or the Higgs particle having a very short lifetime). Thus, we can’t directly observe the Higgs particle with our current instrumentation–we can only observe its decay products, which the video does a good job of explaining.

    After about a nanosecond, the “tweak” in the Higgs field settles down, and the Higgs boson decays into a shower of particles. Scientists look at the showers of particles that occurs after the proton collision, examine the trajectories, add up all the mass and energy, and calculate the probability that all those particles could have come from something *other* than the Higgs. In the case of the two experiments, they’re 99.7% confident (3 sigma) that it must have been the Higgs. Or something with exactly the same characteristics of the Higgs.


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