A little while ago I mentioned on twitter the rumour that CERN will announce discovery of the Higgs particle next week.
It's only a rumour, okay? But I got a few questions from people wanting to know what's a Higgs particle and why does anyone care? So here's the (long) summary:
You know all matter is made of molecules. A couple of hundred years ago people thought molecules must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe. But then it turned out there were teensier things called atoms.
You can make all the millions of different types of molecule from only 92 different types of atom (number 92 is uranium). For a while people thought atoms must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe, but then it turned out that atoms had internal structure. There were teensier things called particles.
All atoms are made up of three different particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. The protons and neutrons stick together in the centre while the electrons whizz around the outside. For a while people thought these three particles must be the fundamental smallest building blocks of the universe, but then it turned out there were actually hundreds of these supposedly fundamental particles. Most of them have been given bizarre names, like the W particle, and the muon antineutrino, &/etc.
Then some of those "fundamental" particles showed signs of having internal structure.
That was kind of depressing because you might be noticing a trend here. Physicists began to wonder if this chain of teensier and teensier things would ever end.
A fellow by the name of Murray Gell-Mann realized that, if you set aside 4 special particles to carry the known forces, and 6 particles that apparently had zero size (they're called leptons...the electron's one of those), then all the other particles could be explained by combining just 6 very weird looking things that he called quarks. Gell-Mann was a huge fan of James Joyce, and quark is one of the made-up words in Finnegan's Wake.
This idea was unbelievably successful. Using 6 quarks, 6 leptons, and 4 force carriers, you could cook them in different combinations to make every particle ever observed; hence build every atom; hence build every molecule; hence build everything. What's more, the model allowed for combinations that made particles no one had ever seen before. Physicists went looking for these, and promptly found every one of them, and never found anything that didn't fit.
So this is now known as the Standard Model. Though I've called these things particles, when you do the mathematics behind this you treat all these things like fuzzy, amorphous blobs that only behave like particles when you look at them from far enough away. When you look at them up close, they behave like fuzzy amorphous blobs. The official name for the amorphous blobs is Quantum Field Theory.
The Standard Model doesn't explain why everything has mass. Mass is the stuff that, when you kick something and it fails to move quickly, you stub your toe. Mass is the reason why everything resists moving when you push it.
A bunch of guys thought about this, among them a certain Professor Higgs. (That's Higgs, not Higgins. The Professor Higgs of this tale is not known to have taught elocution to flower girls.) Higgs et al. guessed that there must be another type of field (amorphous blob), that came to be known as a Higgs Field, that gave everything the semblance of having mass. All the other particles are, in effect, swimming through treacle. The treacle is the Higgs Field and the other particles have to push their way through it.
This was all pie-in-the-sky speculation. But it was certain, given the way that Amorphous Blob Theory works, that if you concentrated the treacle enough and stepped back, then it would look and behave like a particle. This inevitably became known as the Higgs Particle.
But no one had ever seen a Higgs Particle. That was because, even in theory, the amount of energy required to concentrate the treacle field was simply enormous.
So they built the Large Hadron Collider to make concentrated Higgs treacle. I'm not kidding. The LHC cost about 4 billion dollars, and pretty much it's sole purpose is to find the Higgs Particle. Because if we can find that, then we understand mass. If we understand mass, then there's no telling what interesting things we might be able to do.
So if the people at the LHC announce the discovery of the Higgs, then that's a very big deal.