Friday, July 6, 2012

I'd Like an Order of Higgs Boson with a Side of Particle Physics

I tend to get obsessed about things. Sometimes it’s music, other times it’s fiction authors. At the moment, it’s Science Fiction and the science underlying it. And, as luck would have it, this obsession happens to coinside with current events: as you may have heard, the fine scientists in in Geneva, Switzerland operating the Large Hadron Collider have discovered evidence of a Higgs boson particle.

So what the hell is a Higgs boson particle? Here’s my attempt to decyper it in my own words so I can figure it out for myself. To start off, physics has a Standard Model, which dictates how subatomic particles interact with each other. This model has proven to be remarkably accurate, and most of the particles mentioned in it have been proven to exist: all but the Higgs boson. Discovering this particle would fill in the last gap in the model.

So how did they prove that it exists? It's absurdly complicated, but Bad Astronomy has a good summary:
“This particle is very hard to detect, because it doesn’t live long. Once it forms it decays in a burst of energy and other particles (think of them as shrapnel) extremely rapidly. The only way to make them is to smash other particles together at incredibly high energies, and look at the resulting collisions. If the Higgs exists, then it will decay and give off a characteristic bit of energy. The problem is, lots of things give off that much energy, so you have to see the Higgs signal on top of all that noise.
So, you have to collide particles over and over again, countless times, to build up that tiny signal from the Higgs decay. The more you do it, the bigger the signal gets, and the more confident you can be that the detection is real.”
So it’s a particle and was really, really difficult to find.Why is it so important? Well, in addition to confirmation that the Standard Model is accurate, the HB particle proves the existence of the Higgs field. So what's that? The Higgs field is a ginormous field permeating space that controls how all particles have mass. What, you ask? I thought that mass was a measure of the amount of "stuff" that a particle contains? So did I - it's what I was taught in school. But counter to this belief, it turns out that particles implicitly have no mass; any mass that they exhibit is a result of them interacting with the Higgs field (through the Higgs boson). The more a particle interacts with the field, the more mass it has. Some particles fly through the field and have little mass, some are dragged down by the field and have more mass. Now that we know how much mass the Higgs boson has, we can use this solid foundation as a basis to continue exploration into other aspects of physics (although what exactly they may be is unclear to me.)

In the end, regardless of all of the other details, the short story of all this is that mankind has just created and measured the heaviest and most unstable (its mass starts to decay right after its appearance) subatomic particle ever seen by man. Pretty cool stuff!

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