The Higg’s Boson Explained so That a Five Year Old Can Understand It.
Ha ha. The title was a little bit of humour. Or what passes for humour in my confused brain. I don’t even really understand the Higgs Boson, so not sure how much of an explanation I am going to be able to come up with. It’s an important discovery though, so I’m going to try. Let’s start at the beginning, by the start of the twentieth century scientists had determined that the universe was made up of matter and energy. We are all familiar with matter, and by energy I mean things like light and magnetism. All pretty straightforward. Then along came Einstein with the famous E=MC² equation, which basically states that matter is made out of energy. Which eventually let to nuclear weapons which work by converting a tiny amount of matter into energy. Yes, there’s a lot of energy tied up in even the tiniest amount of matter. Science marched on in the ensuing decades and discovered a whole host of atomic and subatomic particles that make up the matter around us. And after awhile, they had a problem. There was no reason for matter to exist! Or to be precise, some of these subatomic particles had mass, and mass is what characterizes matter. So more exactly, scientists couldn’t explain why any particles had mass at all, by rights the universe should just be a seething cauldron of energy.
This was a serious problem. Scientists couldn’t actually say “well, we’ve proved we don’t exist,” since even most lay people could come up with pretty strong arguments against that theory. What to do? Well, in 1960 a fellow named Peter Higgs come up with an idea, there was this thing called the Higgs Field that encompassed the entire universe, and it was populated by these things called Higgs Bosons. How do Higgs Boson give other particles mass? Well, because some particles can zip right through the Higgs Field, and some can’t. The ballroom analogy (nods to physicist David Miller) is the best I’ve come across. Imagine a ballroom with evenly loosely spaced guests milling about at random. These are the Higgs Bosons. Now if someone were to walk across the room, they would have little difficulty. These people would be photons and other particles that are unaffected by the Higgs Field. Now say a celebrity comes to the party, what happens? Why, the Higgs Bosons cluster around them, inhibiting their movement and the movement of anything that gets near them! These celebrity guests are the particles that have mass. Voila, see, it’s that easy!
Wait, why do some particles attract Higgs Bosons and some don’t? Damned if I know, but the scientists who figured this all out claim that it makes sense. And furthermore, they were able to predict what a Higgs Boson would be like if they could create one under laboratory settings. And that’s where the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, or atom smasher in common parlance, comes in. It takes huge amounts of energy to get a Higgs Boson to appear long enough to be measured. And that dear readers is what this claim is all about, the LHC has detected a particle that appears to be very close to what Higgs predicted way back in 1960! Are they absolutely sure? No. Why the rush to make the announcement? Well, partly because it is an amazing discovery, and I suspect partly because the esteemed Mr Higgs is 83 now and they wanted him to be present for the announcement. Yes, scientists are human too.
So why is the Higgs Boson referred to as the God particle? Because the universe loves to punish scientists for making flippant remarks appaently. A scientist originally came up with it because the Higgs Boson explains why we are here, and has regretted it ever since. This is because the Higgs Boson should really be called the Godless particle, its one more step, and a big one at that, towards explaining how our amazing universe came to be out of nothing, no supernatural nonsense required. As the esteemed Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”
Lastly, what good is it? I mean, the Higgs Boson cost billions of dollars to discover, is there any practical use for this discovery? Well, maybe. That’s another question that makes scientists want to beat people to death with their laptops. Basic research almost never has any immediate practical applications, and as such it’s very easy for pundits to claim it’s all a waste of money. One US Senator made his career out of ridiculing science spending, showing how far the country has gone downhill since the 1950s when most people understood what an amazing thing science was. The Higgs Boson may lead to new sources of energy. It may lead to nuclear weapons that can fit inside a bullet. Some even say it may lead to a way to destroy the universe. Science is versatile that way, it can be used for good or evil.
Fortunately scientists haven’t destroyed the universe yet. Frankly I suspect that’s a bit beyond their reach. I hope. Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It’s a beer. Credit and copyright and plug: “Boson de Higgs beer is a wheat beer that combines sour, smoky and spicy flavors … and it’s made with real bosons. The beer was reviewed for Les Coureurs des Boires, a blog authored by Martin Thibault and David Levesque Gendron.” Skol!)