The God Particle

A couple of years ago a panic arose from the public about the experiments taking place at CERN, due to the amount of energy involved with the collisions. Lots of people thought that the LHC would generate a miniature black hole, consuming the Earth and all of us with it. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any black holes out of the collider, but we did find a nifty little particle.

As I’ve discussed previously, everything in our universe interacts via four fundamental forces. Each one of these four forces has a respective carrier particle, or boson, that acts upon matter. Electromagnetic fields, for example, make use of the photon to transmit electromagnetic forces to mass. In this model, the only remaining theory to be validated was the one explaining why particles are massive. Ever since the 1960s with the establishment of the standard model, physicists theorised that matter couldn’t inherently have mass. Particles must somehow gain mass, possibly by passing through a field. This mass-giving field was proposed by Peter Higgs, who believed that this field permeates across our entire universe. The mathematics was also there to prove it, but by the very definition of the field itself, it meant that the Higgs field would be basically impossible to detect.

Just like our trusty fundamental force bosons, this field would require a same sort of force carrier. Thus, the Higgs Boson was born. Proving the existence of this particle would effectively be the same as proving the existence of the field directly. Its discovery would revolutionise the field of particle physics by quantitatively explaining the concept of mass which was thought to be an intrinsic property for so long. However, the problem with this theoretical particle was that, since it is very massive, it would decay almost instantly when created. Only a very high-energy particle accelerator would ever be able to detect and record it. A project like that would cost billions of dollars and require the collaboration of thousands of scientific minds and engineers from all over the world. It would be utter madness to attempt it…

Enter the LHC. Humanity’s largest and most technologically advanced bit of scientific kit. If this beast couldn’t catch that elusive boson, nothing could. The large ring of superconductive electromagnets would accelerate protons close to the speed of light, colliding them at detector positions violently enough to rip the particles apart into their fundamental constituents. As we all should know, E=mc2. This means that, the more energy we put into the collision, the greater the mass of the particles produced. The Higgs Boson is a pretty fat particle, so we need as much energy as we can get to be able to spot it – 13 TeV of it to be precise. As impressive as this sounds, 1 TeV only holds about the kinetic energy of a flying mosquito. The difference between our particle and a mosquito, however, is that the particle is much, much, much smaller. And it’s not nearly as annoying. This amount of energy will push the particle to within a hair’s breadth of the speed of light (99.999956%).

After a few shaky initial runs, on the 14th March 2013 CERN officially announced the confirmation of the Higgs Boson. The Nobel Prize in Physics was swiftly awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs. The other five physicists who worked on proposing the initial idea for the particle must get fed up at hearing Higgs’s name so often. Although I’m not sure the Brout-Englert-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble Boson is quite as catchy. You may recognise it as the ‘God Particle’, but the reference to religion is completely irrelevant. When scientists first theorised the particle, they nicknamed it the ‘Goddamn Particle’ based on how difficult it was to observe. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman then later published a book titled ‘The God Particle’, after ‘The Goddamn Particle’ was rejected by his publishers. The name stuck, and has been extrapolated by the media ever since. I’ll leave you with a joke I found told by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson which I hope you can appreciate as much as I did.

A Higgs boson walks into a church, and the priest says, ‘I’m sorry we don’t allow Higgs bosons to come to churches.’ The Higgs says, ‘but without me, you can’t have mass.’

Harvey

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