And now for something completely different...

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.

26 comments:

Botanist said...

Good summary, Gary. The win-win aspect of all this searching is that not finding the Higgs where we expect to see it would be just as significant, because it means there must be something beyond the Standard Model that we have yet to unearth.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks. I wondered as I wrote that whether I'd ever get to the end! I never realized before how much background there is to this saga.

Just realized I never explained the basis of the rumour...

There's a major physics conference beginning next Wednesday in Melbourne, Australia. This date is also close to when the LHC is due to announce the results of their experiments for the last year.

But if their tests have seen a Higgs particle, then CERN, who run the LHC, would want to make any major announcement in Geneva at their HQ. That's for obvious PR reasons.

It just so happens that CERN have announced a 4.5 hour seminar to be held in Geneva, immediately before the Melbourne conference begins.

...the plot thickens...

Here's the seminar announcement. It will also be webcast: http://is.gd/Lqay56

Since it doesn't take 4.5 hours to say, "We haven't found it yet," the implication is they've discovered the Higgs.

Straight after the seminar, the Director of CERN and the leaders of the experiment groups have declared they'll hold a press conference.

Shannon Cooper said...

Okay, I now understand everything that Sheldon was going on about in Big Bang Theory! Seriously though, WOW, this is so interesting.

Dan Krokos said...

BUT WHAT ARE THE SMALLEST PARTICLES MADE OUT OF?

I mean what makes up the blob? Foam? Foamy foam? Strings?

Bill Cameron said...

In other words, there’s an aether after all. ;)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Bill! It does sort of look like that, doesn't it? But sadly, there still isn't an aether, because you can't take a Higgs Field as being at absolute rest. There are zillions of Higgs fields wandering about and fluctuating, and then there's this little thing called the Uncertainty Principle. I'm afraid Einstein has still got it right.

Gary Corby said...

Hey Dan, if you can explain that adequately, then there's a Nobel Prize waiting for you.

Don't get me started on string theory. It has more to do with religion than science, if you ask me.

There's speculation that when you get to a small enough scale, then space itself might not be smooth any more, but might be broken into chunks, or it might be really a lot like your foam suggestion. If so, then foamy space won't be observed until you can see something as small as what's called the Planck Distance, which happens to be about 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000016 metres. That's rather tiny. It'll be some time before anyone can probe anything that small.

Bill Cameron said...

Aw, come on, Gary. Surely an accelerator the size of the Milky Way is just around the corner, paving the way toward experiments which can test at least SOME aspects of of certainly flavors of string theory.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

I still say it's turtles. All the way down.

Gary Corby said...

The turtles are a popular theory with many well-known adherents.

I for one would be very happy for Ponder Stibbons to collect a Nobel for his work in High Energy Magic. His success in splitting the thaum, and his work on the Roundworld project certainly deserve it.

Ju Dimello said...

Nice explanation! Easy for a layman (non-physicist) like me to understand ;)

The only point I'd like to add is that...the Higgs Field is what that propelled the said mass in a particular direction for no "apparent" reason a few microseconds after the big bang occurred.

And hence the name "God Particle" is associated with the Higgs Boson.

There's also some funda about scalar particles and zero/varying mass, which is still beyond my head...

Elisabeth Black said...

Particle physics literally takes my breath away.

Very well done post.

Linda G. said...

Nicely explained, Gary. For a second there I almost believed I might (possibly) someday understand the universe on a quantum level.

But for now I'm sticking with my idea that the universe erupted from a giant aerosol can, in one long stream of liquid that quickly hardened. I call this Silly String Theory. ;)

Gary Corby said...

At least silly string theory is more testable than the other type!

GalaktioNova said...

Oh, thank you so much! This is the best explanation and one I couldn't even hope for!

eddd said...

Superb exposition. Except for the final suggestion that if we understand fundamental particles better we can do useful things with the knowledge. Let's not fool ourselves. The billions spent will generate... more spending on bigger collides. That's all.

eddd said...

Superb exposition. Except for the final suggestion that if we understand fundamental particles better we can do useful things with the knowledge. Let's not fool ourselves. The billions spent will generate... more spending on bigger collides. That's all.

Stephanie Evans said...

Many thanks for this very clear explanation for those of us who need very clear explanations.

adam.purple said...

Well done. And thanks.

adam.purple said...

Well done. And thanks.

Jason White said...

Very concise, thanks. What are the chances of this leading to a significant technological breakthrough in my lifetime? E.g. cheap pollution free energy, interstellar travel etc..

Jason White said...

Very concise, thanks. What do you think the chances are of this leading to a significant technological breakthrough in my lifetime? e.g. cheap zero pollution energy, interstellar travel etc...

Gary Corby said...

For some reason blogger's decided to double the last couple of comments. The system must think you're particularly interesting.
______

Jason, the electron was the first particle ever discovered, and they found a bucket load of uses for it within a few years. So maybe the same will happen with the Higgs. It's for sure a whole lot of people will be trying.

If so, it'll be the Higgs field and not the Higgs particle that gets used. To do anything with the particle, you'd need an LHC that fits conveniently in your backpack.

What's super-fascinating to me is that after a couple of years of running, the LHC has not found one single thing to invalidate the Standard Model, nor even anything to suggest the Standard Model might need to be extended. That's absolutely unprecedented for any new particle smasher. It suggests the Standard Model might actually be the end of the line. Physicists are going around referring to that as the Nightmare Scenario.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

If they're done exploring the Standard Model, perhaps it's time to take a look at the Luxury Model.

It's the same as the Standard Model, except for the power moon roof, satnav and integrated MP3 player.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Jonathan!

Indeed, there is a Luxury Model. Though yours sounds a whole lot more comfy.

They call the Luxury Model Super Symmetry, or SUSY for short, and based on the LHC results it's looking like a deader.

I apologise btw for having moderation turned on for older posts. I was getting hit by lots of comment spam, and this stops it leaking in.

Sophia Chang said...

Your agent made me come here by bullying those of us scared of science and math (hi, I'm a verbal SAT tutor) and I'm really glad my terror of her made me do it!

I actually (kind of) understand this, using what's left of my formerly Ivy-League educated brain (most of which I destroyed as quickly as possible by working directly in Hollywood.)

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, science is awesome and you are awesome.