« Pathobionts: The tale of an opportunist | Main | How to Prepare for a Conference »
Wednesday
Jul112012

The Big Higgs

by Sarah Scoles

Over the past week, you've probably heard a lot of hype about the Higgs boson. And while you can read many different articles about what it is and why it's important, I want to add a topic in addition to those: what the discovery of a "Higgs-like particle" illuminates about modern science and scientists--most strikingly, that it costs more than God, that no single person is a discoverer, and that data far outpace results.

I know that background on the Higgs is everywhere, but here's a brief overview anyway:

The Higgs boson--or the Thor Particle, as I like to call it in opposition to calling it the God Particle--is the particle that "gives everything mass," (except, of course, the things that don't have mass, like photons). Whatever that means.

What does it mean for a particle to "give everything mass"?

Does that mean that the particles we're made up of are fundamentally made up of Higgs bosons?

No, though that's the first explanation that comes to mind.

Scientists believe that there is a Higgs field that interacts with matter and produces the effect we call "mass," and that the Higgs boson is the field's associated particle. An electromagnetic field has photons to do its work for it--to interact with particles--and to let us know that the field is there. All of the fundamental forces in the universe, scientists believe, require a particle--a boson--to interact with matter. A Higgs field, it would appear, has Higgs bosons. 

Everybody likes to make fun of scientists who smash things together for a living. Credit: XKCD.So one might infer that matter doesn't inherently have mass, but that it gains mass by being in a Higgs field. Particles that have no mass, like photons, zip through the Higgs field undeterred, but particles that do have mass, like hydrogen and the fur atoms that make up my dog, are slapped by Higgs bosons that weight it down. Some have likened a Higgs field to viscous sugar products: if you are a thing that is affected by Higgs bosons, to stroll through a Higgs field is to slog through molasses. 

The thing is, the Higgs field is everywhere. So if you exist and you are affected by Higgs fields, you are always slogging through molasses; you always have mass.

Why do we think this particle exists?

The Higgs family comes out of the Standard Model, which says that there are four fundamental forces--gravitational, electromagnetic, strong, and weak. This model makes predictions about particles that should exist, often many years before we have the technology to find them. Until now, fifty years after its existence was forecast, our technology was insufficient to find the Higgs boson. 

A guy named Higgs did some calculations in the '60s and decided that there should be a particle and a field to explain why some particles have mass and some particles do not. And he named them after himself. Or maybe someone else did.

How do you see a Higgs?

The Large Hadron Collider probes parts of physics that can only be accessed through high energy. In colliders, physicists are attempting to create heavy particles, which usually decay into a shower of other particles in less than a second (for the Higgs, 0.0001 seconds). But even though the actual heavy particles only exist for single blinks of eyes, physicists know exactly what particles they decay into, and on what timescales. By analyzing the lighter particles that result from the post-collision decay, they can tell what heavy particles they all came from.

The LHC scientists are calling what they found a "Higgs-like particle," because it may not be exactly the Higgs they thought they would find. 

To find the new Higgs-like particle, LHC collaborators collided 1,000,000,000,000,000 protons with 1,000,000,000,000,000 other protons and analyzed 1,000,000,000,000,000 decay series. 

So the trouble with finding the Higgs boson is that physicists were unsure about how heavy it was. And the light particle shower's composition--the products of the Higgs's decay--would be different for different Higgs heavinesses.

What did the LHC discover?

As spokesperson Joe Incandela said, "The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found."

To get a detection of this strength and have it be not-a-real-thing, statistics would have to line up to the tune of 1 in 3.5 million. In other words, there is only a 0.0000286% chance that this detection is not a Higgs-like particle.

With the discovery of a mass-bestowing particle, we can investigate fundamental properties of all the stuff that we consider "stuff."

If this Higgs-like particle is exactly the Higgs boson that the Standard Model predicted, then whoop-dee-doo, some physicists were right, and they have now been experimentally vindicated. They can now go forward with that information and learn about "stuff."  

But if the Higgs-like particle is a little different from expected, physicists will have all kinds of new questions to answer, all kinds of hard looks to take at the Standard Model, all kinds of revisions to make to things that that Higgs guy thought were true in 1960, such as that we would be driving flying cars by now.

When two peaks--from two different detectors at the LHC--see the same bump in the same spot, that is good for science. This is a Glamour Shot of the Higgs-like particle. Credit: CMS and ATLAS Collaborators.

What does this landmark discovery tell us about modern science?

Things the Higgs boson discovery emphasizes about modern science:

  1. It's expensive. The LHC runs a cost of $10billion.
  2. You don't always know that your investment will pay off with positive results. Since we are trying to prove the existence of something that we don't know exists (and something whose characteristics we're a bit shaky on), we can't know that we'll see it. The null result is also interesting and can lead science in new directions, but null results of this kind are often peppered with buts--"we haven't seen it yet, but," " but we haven't tried this energy range," etc.--so that definitive statements like "There is no Higgs boson" or "There are no gravitational waves" are unlikely to be made.
  3. Nobody gets rich from dividing the Nobel Prize up into 1,000 pieces, though everybody does get to put it on their CV. But since large, expensive, data-intensive collaborations are the ones that churn out Nobel-level results, maybe it's time to consider the "we give the prize to a person" model.
  4. We have the data long before we have the time to analyze it. The Higgs-like particle's characteristics are there in the data--on disks, taunting us--for a long time before we can pull them out of the noise. But it's strange to think that the secrets of the universe are lurking on hard drives, just waiting for us to sift through and interpret. As instruments produce more and more data, our ability to keep up with it diminishes. And sometimes there is so much data that we can't figure out how to reduce and display it in a way that we can understand. It is disturbing to think how many answers might be encoded in Terabyte disks, to be discovered years later or not at all.
  5. Scientists want more questions to ask. "We have it all figured out now, thx," isn't a standard feeling. In an e-mail, Maria Spiropulu, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who works with the CMS team of physicists, said: “I personally do not want it to be standard model anything — I don’t want it to be simple or symmetric or as predicted. I want us all to have been dealt a complex hand that will send me (and all of us) in a (good) loop for a long time.”

Here's the official Cern press release:http://press.web.cern.ch/press/PressReleases/Releases2012/PR17.12E.html

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (13)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    check out http://www.dealsextra.com.au/business/Hypno-Lipo.php for Hypno Lipo deals, Hypno Lipo reviews
  • Response
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    It sad. Several experience likened a Higgs stadium to viscous sweeten produces: if you are a act that is susceptible by Higgs bosons, to amble ended a Higgs sphere is to slog ended molasses.
  • Response
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: herbs alveo
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: click here
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: Church Jobs
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: Internet Page
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: Internet Page
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: adult dating site
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    Response: adult dating site
    The Big Higgs - Blog - Smaller Questions
  • Response
    E-learning is probably the fastest growing educational trend by the virtue of modern technology and modified education systems whereby students can get proper degrees and job opportunities plus career breakthroughs and startup offers as well.

Reader Comments (1)

I would just like to preface my comment/question by stating this website is a wonderful resource, especially for someone who is moderately "illiterate" in the realm of comprehending scientific data. Recently, I have begun to excite that 12-year-old and delve back into science, while continuing my career in public policy. Upon hearing about this discovery, I found myself questioning the significance of the "higgs field" to the "alpha" or fine structure constant. I can see a link but I have yet to discern what it is (or I may just be seeing things). If the alpha constant, which determines the strength of force between electrically charged particles, is variable as purported by John Webb and Julian King, what effect does this have on the "higgs field", if any. Does this the discovery of the "higgs field" or "thor particle" resonate with the theory of varying constants? What are the implications if so? Just a few thoughts that have been pulling my strings.

July 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJodee Bruce

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>