RSS Twitter Facebook

Follow Us On


Higgs Boson, Huh?

July 9th, 2012

by Jason Kendall

It’s a huge discovery of a tiny particle … and the biggest news in Physics in a very long time.

Scientists found the existence of the Higgs boson particle.

What’s the big deal?

Particles are the tiniest objects of Nature and studying them helps us understand our Universe and how life was formed.

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.

The announcement was made on July 4th. And 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 breaker 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.

Peter Higgs. Photo by Gert-Martin Greuel via Wikimedia Commons

So, a good summertime analogy … let’s look at the sand to help us!

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. You can think of Lego bricks as atoms. And you can think of molecules as what you build with the atoms, says tdewitt451 who has a YouTube video on the difference  between atoms and 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. So how does it have mass, if mass is stuff? The answer is that it doesn’t have to!

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.

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

The amount of “Higgs sand” that attaches to your feet determines your mass. Big feet mean big sand. (And everyone gets mad at you for tracking it into the house and into the car).

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.

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.

On July 4 th of this year, Peter Higgs, now in his 80s, went to the LHC and proudly learned about how this particle that is named after him was found. What a great way to spend the Fourth! Surrounded by the biggest fireworks of all! And now it’s back to work for scientists to try to answer all the new questions its existence has created!

Speaking of questions, if you have any for Jason about Higgs boson, he’d love to answer them for you. You can submit them in the box below!

Jason Kendall is NYC’s NASA Solar System Ambassador.

Print Friendly

46 Comments on “Higgs Boson, Huh?”

  • Annual Moroon Shimps says:

    Job Well Done Jason …………was wonder what Higgs Boson the so called -god particle is . U explained in simple words … gees! great job .

  • hale says:

    Wait, how did he discover these particles using math?

    • Jason Kendall says:

      Good question, Hale! Well the best way to answer it is with an analogy. First, think of a string being plucked on a guitar or violin. The string vibrates back and forth. And if you take a high-speed movie of it, you’ll see the string wave back and forth, with the string seeming to move like a water wave. Now we can calculate with math the length of the waves on the string, but we at least know they have to be shorter than the neck of the guitar or violin. Now, if we look closely at the super-speed movies, then we’ll see that the higher the pitch the more “standing waves” there are on the string, and therefore the shorter the wavelength. Funny thing is that we can calculate with math, exactly what pitches are allowed to be played on a given string. So, we can predict with the math what pitches we should hear. So, if you wanted to make in advance a string instrument that plays low pitches, you need long wavelengths (like a standup bass). This all goes by way of saying the math provides a guide to building the machine to get a result. In the same way, the energy of the Higgs Boson was predicted by the math of Particle Theory, and so a machine had to be built that could make things that had that much energy to make them. To see strange wave effects, watch this:

Leave a Comment

If you’re under 13, please submit your parent’s email address so that we can get their permission.