That Higgs Boson Thingy

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 10 years, you must have heard of the Higgs boson, or by it’s tagline “the God particle”. It’s the current star of news show physics, alongside the machine built to detect it, the Large Hadron Collider.

But what exactly is this superstar particle and why is everyone going nuts over it?

Particle collision which may have produced a Higgs boson

First, we must look at the area of physics that it is part of. The universe around us has been found to be made of twelve fundamental particles, governed by four fundamental forces, the electromagnetic force, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the  gravitational force.

Each of the fundamental forces has a different strength and range, the strong nuclear force being incredibly strong, but only at an atomic level, gravity being by far the weakest but works over an infinite range.

We know that three of these forces result from the exchange of force carrier particles, which belong to a group called ‘bosons’. Matter particles transfer tiny amounts of energy by exchanging bosons with each other.

Each fundamental force has its own corresponding boson particle. The strong force is carried by the ‘gluon’, the electromagnetic force is carried by the ‘photon’, and the ‘W and Z bosons’ are responsible for the weak force. The ‘graviton’ is the theoretical particle that is supposed to carry the gravitational force, but has not been (and will never be, due to the nearly undetectable nature of gravitons) proven under experimental conditions.
These different particles, the bosons, quarks, leptons and such, help to build up the standard model, our most accurate view of what our universe is made from.

The Standard Model

So we have basic particles, fundamental forces and the particles that carry these forces, but where does the Higgs boson fit in to all this?

In the 1970’s, physicists realized that there are very close ties between two of the four fundamental forces  the weak force and the electromagnetic force. The two forces can be described within the same theory, which forms the basis of the Standard Model. This ‘unification’ implies that electricity, magnetism, light and some types of radioactivity are all manifestations of a single underlying force called, unsurprisingly, the electroweak force.

But in order for this unification to work mathematically, it requires that the force carrying particles (bosons) have no mass. We know from experiments that this isnt the case, so physicists Peter Higgs, Robert Brout and François Englert came up with a solution to solve this conundrum.

They suggested that all particles had no mass just after the Big Bang. As the Universe cooled and the temperature fell below a critical level, an invisible force field called the ‘Higgs field’ was formed together with the associated ‘Higgs boson’. The field prevails throughout the cosmos, any particles that interact with it are given mass via the Higgs boson. The more they interact with the Higgs field, the heavier they become, whereas particles that never interact are left with no mass at all, like photons.

How the Higgs field theoretically works

Finding the Higgs would be a big moment in physics, it would help confirm the standard model as correct as it predicts there should be a Higgs particle. It would also explain why things have mass, particularly why the photon has no mass, but the W and Z bosons are incredibly massive.

So far, experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have hinted that there is something around the energy range scientists expect to find the Higgs, but it has not been confirmed as a discovery because the experiments have to stand up to a very strict ranking system called the sigma scale.

The sigma scale is the scale of how likely a result is to happen. In order for a discovery to be announced, it must reach a five sigma rating, meaning that there is a one in a million chance there is a signal there without there being a new particle. Rumors are that the data is close to this level, with reports of 4.5 to 5 sigma ratings for the Higgs.

It seems a case of when, not if the Higgs is discovered, but its the future of physics that makes the hopeful confirmation so exciting. The existance of the Higgs boson at lower energy collisions (as is looking likely) would open the door to explore supersymmetry, a core component of string theory, and which is the leading contender in the conundrums of dark matter and dark energy, incredibly mysterious substances that makes up around 98% of our universe, but we can’t detect any of it.

Dark Matter. Like this, but everywhere, and we cant see it, or detect it at all.

 

So not only is the Higgs boson an incredibly important particle for the physics we are studying now, it will be the first stepping stone to what has been called beyond standard model physics.

The next few days will be incredibly interesting to watch, as scientists at the LHC calculate their data, and are looking increasingly likely to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson. But it’s the path and the future that it points to, which will be most interesting of all.
Suggested further reading:
In depth article on supersymmetry.
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