The Higgs Boson Q&A

Physicists worldwide are celebrating the discovery of the Higgs boson. But what is it? And why should you care? Everyday Einstein explains. 

Lee Falin, PhD,
July 13, 2012
Episode #012

By now you’ve heard all about the discovery of the Higgs boson particle and how scientists all over the world are super-excited about it. But what is the Higgs boson and does this mean we can finally have flying cars and teleportation?.

Q. What is the Higgs boson exactly?

The Higgs boson is an elementary particle.

Q. That’s great, but what is an elementary particle?

In the episode What are Atoms? we mentioned that atoms are the Lego blocks of the universe, and that all matter is made of them. We also said that atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Well, it turns out that protons and neutrons are further made up of elementary particles. (Electrons are themselves an elementary particle and it isn’t currently believed that they can be broken down any further. Sorry electrons.)

Q. So what’s so special about this particular elementary particle?

The special thing about this particle is that physicists have long believed that this particle is responsible for giving other elementary particles their mass. 

Q. And how exactly does it do that?

According to the current model of the universe, there is an invisible field of energy called the Higgs field. As Yoda said, “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together…” Other particles acquire mass through their interaction with the Higgs field.

Imagine that the universe is a giant food court and the particles of the universe are people walking around the food court trying to decide what to eat. At my local mall, occasionally there are people standing in front of each restaurant handing out free simples. In our example, these people would represent the Higgs field.

Of course the tastiest part of this Higgs field analogy are the samples themselves. As you pass by the various smiling mall employees, you take a sample here or there. Each sample you take makes you more massive, just as particles interacting with Higgs boson particles that make up the Higgs field acquire mass. And, just like some people take more free samples than others, some particles interact with the Higgs field more than others.

Q. So if everyone has known about this particle before, why all the hoopla now?

You may remember the familiar G.I. Joe phrase “Knowing is half the battle.” In science, knowing is the entire battle. Up until this point nobody had been able to prove the existence of the Higgs boson particle, even though the standard model of physics we have been working under for many years predicted its existence.

Q. So how did they finally discover it?

I’ll let Math Dude explain more about that, but the short answer is that it required a lot of statistics and a very large particle accelerator. This machine slams subatomic particles into each other in an attempt to bust them apart. Researchers are quick to point out that while this new particle they’ve discovered is most likely the Higgs boson, they aren’t 100% sure yet.

Q. So why is the Higgs boson called “The God Particle?”

There are lots of stories about how the Higgs boson earned that nickname, but ultimately it’s because the media likes to sensationalize science and the headline “Scientists Discover the God Particle” sells better than “Scientists Possibly Discover the Higgs Boson.” In fact, most scientists dislike the name since neither the particle, nor its discovery, have anything to do with God or religion. 

Q. So what does this change? When do I get a flying car?

For the average person, this doesn’t really change anything. As I mentioned, physicists have long been operating under the assumption that this particle exists. What it may do is divert much of the funding that has gone to searching for this particle towards research on how to apply that knowledge. But unfortunately you’ll probably still have to wait at least a generation or three for that flying car.

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