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SCIENCE

Big Prize for Little Particle

October 8th, 2013

Computer simulation of a Higgs boson proton collision. By Lucas Taylor via Wikimedia Commons

Here at HTE, we figured we were onto something when we reported about the discovery of the Higgs boson last summer .

It turns out the Nobel Prize committee thought it was a big deal, too. In one of the most anticipated announcements, they awarded Peter Higgs the Nobel Prize for Physics this year!

The Higgs boson is a teeny tiny particle, smaller than an atom, that explains a lot about how our universe works. Higgs came up with the theory for it in 1964. And other scientists proved his theory existed last summer — nearly half a century later — at the world’s largest underground particle smasher near the France/Switzerland border.

Peter Higgs at CERN. Photo credit: CERN via Wikimedia Commons

Higgs was awarded the prize jointly with scientist, Francois Englert (pronounced: on-glare), who had basically the same idea, independently, at the same time, even though Higgs’ name was eventually attached to it.

Francois Englert. Photo credit: Pnicolet via Wikimedia Commons

Many say it’s the biggest discovery of the century, not just the year.

Higgs is British and lives in Scotland, and is described as mild-mannered and even shy. He also reportedly doesn’t have a cell phone, TV, or Internet! Francois Englert is from Belgium.

There are also Nobel Prizes being awarded this week in other areas like medicine, chemistry, literature, economics, and peace, as well. You can learn more about it at the  Nobel Prize  website,  here .

And here is an  educational link  on the Nobel Prize  website .

HTE is wondering … why don’t we know the names of nearly as many Nobel prize winners as we do singers and actors? Why aren’t these accomplished people — who are at the top of their field and contribute so much to society — famous celebrities too?

THE HIGGS BOSON

by Jason Kendall, HTE Kids News Space writer

Why is a particle so small you can’t even see it … such a big deal? Because it helps explain A LOT about our universe.

A boson is a kind of particle that’s even smaller than an atom (called a sub-atomic particle). And it’s named after Peter Higgs who imagined it on paper using math in 1964.

But it took nearly 50 years … and the world’s largest particle smasher buried underground near the border of France and Switzerland to find out it really exists.

Peter Higgs felt lucky it was found at all, not to mention in his lifetime!

The Higgs boson particle shows us  how  things have mass.

So, what’s mass? Mass is a funny thing. If you pick up shells on the beach, they are pretty light. But a rock —  the exact same size  as a seashell — is heavier. So why is one thing “light” and another thing “heavy”? For the longest time, the best answer anyone could ever give was that, “one thing has more stuff than the other.”

So let’s throw them up in the air.

Isaac Newton’s laws of Gravity tell us that it takes more effort to throw the big rocks than the little seashells. So mass is related to the amount of stuff … and how it takes more energy to move heavier things.

We can measure weight, size, and how hard it is to push things around, but that still doesn’t tell us what mass is … just what we can do to it.

So, a good analogy … let’s look at sand.

Look really closely at a handful of sand and you’ll see that the grains are really similar to each other, and they look like crunched up rocks. That’s what much of sand is, ground up rocks.  So wait a second; if we take certain rocks and bash them around enough, we’ll find we might get some sand out of it. This means that we can break rocks, and we get smaller and smaller rocks. Each little rock weighs less, so how far can we break the rocks and it’s still rock? Keep on cracking it down, and you’ll find that sand’s make up includes silicon dioxide: a molecule. This is as small as you can break it apart and it’s still sand.

Atoms are the building blocks of molecules.

Atoms are so small that even if you took a microscope to a grain of sand, you couldn’t see the atoms that make up the grain. There’s a hundred billion billion atoms in just one grain of sand! Those are some tiny building blocks!

OK, let’s just focus on just one of those atoms, say an oxygen atom in the sand. Even though it’s really small, it still has mass: It can be thrown; it falls in gravity. But as we look closely at the atom, we find it’s made up of smaller stuff too: protons, neutrons and electrons. Electrons are really small, just to choose one of them, but it too, has a tiny, tiny, tiny mass. But here’s the thing. We can’t smack it and break it apart! An electron is not made up of anything else.

It is just what it is.

It has charge (just ask an electrical outlet!) and it spins, and it has mass. But where are these things within it? Well, here’s the rub. You can’t cut it apart or break it, so it’s a point particle. You can’t put “stuff” inside something that doesn’t have space. (Just try putting all your stuff under the bed. Eventually you run out of room.) But with an electron, there’s no room to begin with.

Back to the beach. Get there early in the morning before anyone else has walked on it. The sandy beach is nice and smooth. You step out of your shoes and get your feet wet in the morning surf, and you walk on the beach. The sand sticks to your feet in clumps, and your feet are heavier with the wet sand. What’s more, no matter how hard you try, you can’t shake off the sand.

The Higgs bosons are like the sand. Your feet are like little electrons and protons in the atoms.

The amount of “Higgs sand” that attaches to your feet determines your mass. Big feet mean big sand.

We call the sandy beach the “Higgs field”. It’s everywhere feet (or electrons and protons) can go. As electrons and protons move, they get bogged down in the sand of the “Higgs-field” … and that bogging down is mass.

We know of particles that have no mass, such as particle of light: photons. They are like kites that never touch the sand. They don’t interact with the sand, or the Higgs field, so they don’t have mass.

Fireworks

Now that we’ve been to the beach, let’s watch some fireworks. That’s how they found the Higgs boson. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) smashes protons together at nearly the speed of light, and when they smack into each other zillions of other particles are created. It’s like learning what’s inside a delicate watch by hitting it with a hammer and seeing what flies out.

So, to keep our beach analogy alive, it takes a LOT of hard smacking of your shoes on the sidewalk to get that sand off you when you need to go home. In the same way, the Higgs bosons really want to stay “on the beach” and not be found all by themselves. It’s very, very hard to isolate a Higgs boson, but it’s what’s needed to be done to prove it exists. And it takes an incredible amount of energy to do this. Kind of like simulating the Big Bang — which is why the LHC is nicknamed the “big bang machine”!

And this is what the Higgs boson is about. “The Higgs field is thought to have switched on a trillionth of a second after the big bang that blasted the universe into existence. Without it, or something to do its job, the structure of the cosmos would be radically different than it is today,” writes Ian Sample with CERN, the international organization that oversees the LHC.

And for today, it’s one of the tiniest, most elusive particles that won Peter Higgs and Francois Englert one of the biggest prizes.

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