Sunday, July 8, 2012

What is the Higgs boson?

This past week, scientists at CERN laboratories in Switzerland announced they'd found the elusive Higgs boson (or at least a Higgs-like boson).  Great news! But what the heck is a Higgs boson? Let's break this question down.

Who is Higgs?

Peter Higgs is a particle theorist--a physicist who specializes in studying the tiny particles that serve as building blocks for everything.  In the 1960s, Higgs and five others came up with a theory, and a theoretical particle to go with it.

What is a boson?

A boson is a sub-atomic particle.  Say you have a water molecule--that's two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (or H2O.)  A boson is smaller than those atoms.

What does the Higgs boson do?

When you get down to the really small scale in physics, you talk about how particles interact with fields.  In this case, the Higgs Field is a field that gives particles mass as they move through it.  Higgs bosons are the sort of currency of the Higgs Field. 

The Higgs Field and its associated boson fit in with what scientists call the Standard Model in physics.  The field and boson help provide an explanation of how things have mass.

So what does finding the Higgs boson mean?

Well, if the boson they found is a Higgs boson, it would appear to confirm the Higgs Field part of the Standard Model.  What can you do with a Higgs boson? I'm not sure.  Just as the boson is a tiny particle that is a building block for bigger things, I think this discovery is a building block for bigger discoveries.  We can't stop to rest now.  Finding the Higgs boson is just a good start.

If you could tackle any problem in science, what would you pick?

(For an interesting audiointerview with Peter Higgs, visit this post by Matin Durrani at Physics World.  This article in Yahoo News by Natalie Wolchover gives a good explanation of the Higgs Field.  And this article by Hamish Johnston at Physics World tells about CERN's big discovery.)


  1. OK, maybe it's just because I've just finished Dead Girl with its cruel cliffhanger ending...but is it possible the Higgs-boson allows evil queens to move back and forth from The Shadowlands...huh? huh? I think I'm onto something! ;). Kidding

    Clearly you are way smarter than me because not sure what a Higgs-boson might be good for. Thanks for educating me though. I always enjoy reading your work. God Bless!

  2. In his audio interview, Peter Higgs said something to the effect of, "Finding the boson is nice, but that doesn't mean we should declare victory, shut down the collider, and go home." It's really just a start.

    Hopefully, what is now a matter of pure science will eventually become a matter of applied science.

    Thank you for commenting.

  3. Mark wrote: "If you could tackle any problem in science, what would you pick?"

    Great question Mark!! The problem I would pick is, what problem should I pick?

    I would read the available academic literature, develop theories, gather data, test hypotheses, and travel the world in pursuit of the objective answer to "what should I be reading, theorizing, testing, and exploring"?

    At the end of a long and exhaustive life-long scientific career, I would come to one final and summary conclusion: The available evidence fails to conclusively support the theory that I should or should not tackle the problem I have neither pursued nor failed to pursue. But of course, there is only a 25% chance that the conclusion is conclusive.

    Yes...a life well spent!!! :)

  4. If you should run across Baron Munchausen during your scientific travels, please tell him I said 'hello,' and that he still owes me a horse.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!