After 30 years and 9 billion dollars, CERN scientists working with the LHC have finally announced the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson. The sensitive instruments inside the LHC have experimentally detected a particle at an energy level around 126 GeV (which, in the world of subatomic particles, is a really big fatty), and the scientists over there are 99.99999% sure it's the fabled Higgs boson, as it behaves exactly as theoretically predicted. However, scientists are being understandably careful in calling it a "new boson" - just to be safe, until it's confirmed that it is indeed what they started out to discover in the first place.
Heck, the discovery was so big, that Peter Higgs, the man who's given his name to this theoretical - well, not anymore - particle went up in tears when he explained just how amazed he was to see his theory proven within his lifetime.
|The large Hadron Collider - or as the scientists themselves call it: the large HARDON collider.|
But why is this so big? What is the Higgs boson, and why is it so important?
The short version is this. Everything in this world (save for the photons that make up light and all other electromagnetic radiation such as x-rays, radio waves and gamma rays) has mass: in a gravitational field, everything weighs something. From a hidrogen atom, to your big fat momma. While everyone knows your momma's so fat she uses the Ecuator as a belt size, really really smart science type peoples have wondered: why does your momma weigh so much? More specifically, why does she have mass at all? Well, as it turns out, it's this Higgs Boson that puts the "ass" in "mass". This boson is responsible for giving mass to all the other particles. Yep, it makes everything fat. It's like the McDonald's particle of the universe.
Yep. The Higgs boson is the reason why your momm'as massive. Get it? MASS-ive? mASS-ive? Haha.
|Peter Higgs on the right, explaining why your momma is this fat.|
No? Okay. Well, the fact still remains: us non-science-y people don't give a rat's ass why stuff has mass. But it's up to scientists to ask the big questions, and as far as those kinds of questions go, this is a big one.
Ok, this is a big issue.This changes physics and our understanding of the Universe forever. So I'll get a little serious for while. Why does this boson matter so much? Here's the long version.
An atom is made up of only three things: electrons, protons and neutrons. If you break it down, all you need to have matter are actually electrons, and up and down quarks. Those two create protons and neutrons. But even this creates the amazing variety of atoms and elements, with their categories. That's why matter, as described by the basic known elements, is organized into the periodic table: because many of them can be grouped by their behavior. But underneath the atoms of the elements, there are more building blocks. These are subatomic particles, and they're grouped into categories, and organized by pairs that interact with each other.
Using a particle accelerator, you can move particles at incredible speeds and give them high energy. When they collide, they annihilate each other, and that energy is released. Scientists can use that released particle juice to make new particles, new matter: the higher the energy, the heavier and more complex the matter you can create. This is how the Higgs boson was predicted, by way of calculating what you could make with the energy you have.
Of importance to the Higgs issue is understanding what a boson is. It's just one of the array of subatomic particles known to man, named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. They include mesons, (pions, kaons), nuclei of even mass number (helium-4) and the quantum theory particles: photons and gluons. Essentially, a boson is a particle that acts differently from Fermions (which obey what scientists call Fermi-Dirac statistics) and is governed by complicated Bose-Einstein statistics. Where fermions are essentially less "flexible" particles and create less flexible systems, the stuff than is made up by fermions is described as more "stiff" or "rigid" - thus, fermions are often regarded as the constituents of matter. In contrast, bosons are particles that transmit interactions and are considered the constituents of radiation. They can occupy the same place in space with other bosons, and thus are often force carrier particles - aka the bundles of energy, the "quanta", that make up the field of force. A Higgs boson is thus the particle that makes up the so-called Higgs field, just as the photon makes up the electromagnetic field.
|Here we see science in action.|
How does it do it? What is the Higgs field? Well, when you think about a particle having mass, you think that it's because it has "stuff", but that's not the case. Just as some particles have an electrical charge, and some don't, mass is understood by modern theoretical physicists as "gravitational charge", as a property or characteristic. The higher the mass, or "gravitational charge", of a particle, the more it is affected by the Higgs field. To objects with higher mass, space (in this case, the Higgs field) is "thicker", "denser", "stickier", whereas light particles move more freely and are less affected by it. It's the degree of interactions with this Higgs field that gives matter "mass" as we know it.
But don't take my word for it: here's what the New York Times says about the field:
"According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous."
Without mass, the Universe would not exist in the way that it does, and there would be no diversity in organized matter, as we can witness today: stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies - especially life. Understanding this particle is thus key to understanding why the Universe is the way it is - without the Higgs boson, there would be no atoms and no life.