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The Higgs boson made simple

Physicists at CERN are expected to announce that they have observed a new subatomic particle that may be the long-sought Higgs boson. Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, talks about the boson on MSNBC.


So what's the Higgs boson, and why are people spending billions of dollars to find that god-danged subatomic particle? I've rounded up a variety of resources aimed at showing you why the hunt for the Higgs is a big deal.


First, a little context: The Higgs particle, and its associated field, were hypothesized back in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs and others to fill a weird gap in the Standard Model, one of physics' most successful theories. The model as it stood had no mechanism to explain why some particles are massless (such as the photon, which is the quantum bit for light and other types of electromagnetic radiation), while other particles have varying degrees of mass (such as the W and Z bosons, which play a part in the weak nuclear force). By rights, all particles should be without mass and zipping around freely.

The Higgs mechanism sets up a field that interacts with particles to endow them with mass, and the Higgs boson is the particle associated with that field — just as photons are associated with an electromagnetic field. For more than four decades, physicists have assumed that the Higgs field existed, but found no experimental evidence for it. It requires a super-powerful particle smasher such as the Large Hadron Collider to produce energies high enough to knock a Higgs boson into existence under controlled conditions.

But the heavy particles created in a collider exist for just an instant before they decay into lighter particles. The LHC's physicists have been looking for particular patterns in the spray of particles that match what they'd expect to see from the decay of the Higgs boson. They've collected data for roughly a quadrillion proton-on-proton collisions, and on Wednesday they'll announce the status of the Higgs search based on those conclusions. (Tune in the webcast.)

The teams at the LHC's ATLAS and CMS detectors are likely to say they're pretty sure they see a new type of particle with Higgs-like characteristics, but will need more time to nail down those characteristics completely. If that's the case, physicists can then go on to find out if the Higgs mechanism works exactly the way they expected it to, or whether there are unexpected twists. Some of the theories about how the universe is put together are pretty far-out — for example, suggesting that there are several dimensions in space that we can't perceive directly, or that there are huge troops of subatomic particles that we haven't yet discovered. Following the tracks left behind by the Higgs could reveal whether there's any truth to those theories.

Analogies, please!
For decades, experts have been trying to come up with analogies to illustrate how the Higgs mechanism works. One of the best-known was proposed in 1993 by David Miller, a physicist at University College London. Imagine looking down from a balcony in a ballroom, watching a cocktail party below. When just plain folks try to go from one end of the room to the other, they can walk through easily, with no resistance from the party crowd. But when a celebrity like Justin Bieber shows up, other partygoers press around him so tightly that he can hardly move ... and once he moves, the crowd moves with him in such a way that the whole group is harder to stop.

The partygoers are like Higgs bosons, the just plain folks are like massless particles, and Bieber is like a massive Z boson.

The Guardian's Ian Sample demonstrates a variant of this analogy in a 4.5-minute video: Imagine a tray with ping-pong balls scattered on it. The balls roll freely around the empty tray. But then, if you spread a layer of sugar over the tray, the balls sitting on the piled-up sugar don't roll so easily. The grains of sugar introduce a kind of inertial "drag," and that's the kind of effect that the Higgs field supposedly has on particles with mass.

In a 60-second shot of science written for Symmetry magazine, Howard Haber of the University of California at Santa Cruz uses a livelier comparison to a high-speed bullet plowing through a vat of molasses.

What good is it?
Particle physicists try to avoid forecasting the applications of an experimental advance before the actual advance is confirmed, but in the past, advances on a par with the discovery of the Higgs boson have had lots of beneficial applications, and some that are more questionable. The rise of nuclear power and nuclear weaponry is a prime example of that double-edged sword.

The discovery of antimatter is what made medical PET scanning possible, and antimatter propulsion could eventually play a part in interstellar travel, just like on "Star Trek." Particle accelerators have opened the way to medical treatments such as proton eye therapy — as well as advances in materials science, thanks to neutron scattering.

It's conceivable that the discoveries made at the Large Hadron Collider will eventually point to new sources of energy, Michio Kaku, a physicist at City College of New York, told me during a discussion of the LHC's promise and peril. And if the discovery of the Higgs leads to fresh insights into the fabric of the universe, it's conceivable that we could take advantage of the as-yet-unknown weave of that fabric for communication or transportation. Who knows? Maybe this is how "Star Trek" gets its start.

Visualizing the Higgs
If one picture can be worth a thousand words, how much are six videos worth? Here are half a dozen videos that delve more deeply into the Higgs boson and its significance. Be sure to tune in CERN's webcast starting at 3 a.m. ET for the latest revelations.

PHD Comics explains the Higgs boson. (7:45)

Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln describes the nature of the Higgs boson.(3:27)

BBC Horizon highlights the hunt for the Higgs in an hour-long special. (59:06)

Cassiopeia Project explains the Higgs field. (5:37)

Ezra Klein previews the Higgs boson news on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. (3:21)

Associated Press video about the Higgs boson (2:06)

 

Silly and serious talk about the Higgs boson: 

Some of the (other) blogs to watch for Higgs boson updates:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.