Y! Big Story: In search of a simple explanation of Higgs boson, aka the God Particle

Vera H-C Chan

Click image to see more photos.

Higgs boson verified at Level 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV????? Yowza.

OK, let's try this again: Scientists are now within reach of finding the so-called God particle. About 5,000 researchers divided into two teams--ATLAS and CMS--found a subatomic particle, and it could be the elusive Higgs, the polka-dotted unicorn of the physics world. Here's a "simple" explanation of what has physicists agog the world over:

As of July 4, 2012, the Higgs boson is the last fundamental piece of the standard model of particle physics to be discovered experimentally. But you might ask, why was the Higgs boson included in the standard model alongside well-known particles like electrons and protons and quarks, if they hadn't been discovered back then in the 1970s? (The Higgs Boson, Part I, Minute Physics)

Wait, is this the simple explanation? Let's try this again, because our decoder rings are telling us that scientists are on the verge of discovering the mass behind matter, the be-all behind the universe coming into being. And, if we're understanding these overly intelligent mutterings, the applications of this finding has all sorts of implications, like figuring out dark matter, time travel, and other exhilarating-terrifying possibilities. So here's a layman's low-down on Higgs boson and what it could mean for humankind.

I thought these animals were extinct? Not bison, but boson. The name Higgs boson comes from a mash-up of two names: British physicist Peter Higgs and an Indian scientist, whose underrated accomplishments got a class of particles named after him.

[A] boson -- one of the two fundamental classes of subatomic particles -- is named after Satyendra Nath Bose, who preceded Higgs. ... Bose, who worked with Albert Einstein to bring out the Bose-Einstein statistics and the theory of Bose-Einstein condensate in the 1920s, was a natural candidate for a Nobel Prize, which he never got. But his work on quantum mechanics was so substantial that one of the subatomic particles was named after him. However, when science's biggest find came, Bose was missing from the limelight, even in India. (July 5, Times of India)

What does God have to do with this: Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman, who wanted to push the (expensive) idea of building the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, dropped the term in his 1993 book, "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?" The phrase came from his desire for a defining name that would explain humankind's "final understanding of the structure of matter."

Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one. (July 5, Poynter)

Thanks for the etymology, what about the science? Here goes: A 20th-century breakthrough figured out that atoms were made up of three particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Then, as physicists are wont to do, they started smashing the particles, which broke down into even smaller particles.

Scientists figured these itty-bitty particles were quarks, held together by gluons. Then scientist Peter Higgs proposed the burning, yearning question: Surely there must be one uber-particle that creates an invisible field (called the Higgs field) that adds mass to matter. After all, why do planets cluster around the sun?

As Higgs theorized things, the universe is filled with an energy field through which all particles must move much the way an airplane has to push its way through a stiff headwind. The greater the potential mass of the particle, the greater the resistance it encounters. It's theoretically possible for a particle to have no actual mass at all, and indeed, the photon is massless. But that's the exception. All other particles -- protons, electrons, neutrons, neutrinos -- are eventually pinged by the Higgs bosons that suffuse the field. That tiny collision converts the particle from a packet of energy to a packet of matter. (The Higgs acquires its own mass through its own interactions with the field.) (July 4, Time)

Higgs field is what's important: MSNBC's Cosmic Log, which does a manly job at a resource roundup, updates a 1993 analogy to explain the Higgs field: You're on a balcony watching a cocktail party. People come in and walk from one end of the room to another. Then, Justin Bieber enters. Hysteria ensues -- partygoers cluster around him and he can barely move and get to the cocktail franks at the other end of the room.

[O]nce he moves, the crowd moves with him in such a way that the whole group is harder to stop. The partygoers are like Higgs bosons, the just plain folks are like massless particles, and Bieber is like a massive Z boson. (July 3, MSNBC)

Isn't everything simpler when Bieber's in the picture?

What's the big deal? Besides understanding how the universe works?

Discovering the so-called Higgs boson particle would be one of the greatest achievements in science, rivaling the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 and the Apollo moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s. It can explain why some particles have mass, but why others, such as photons of light, do not. ... A Higgs boson particle is essential to the so-called standard model of physics -- the generally accepted theory about how the universe works. Finding it would effectively confirm the standard model. (July 5, Independent)

CERN researchers caution that, "despite press reports, the Higgs is not directly related either to the Big Bang or inflation -- as far as we know." That's not stopping a lot of what-if scenarios. After all, the Web came about by CERN scientists desire to give particle physicists quicker ways to commune. The U.S. Department of Energy lists the discipline for helping with eveything from food sterilization and scanning shipping containers to cancer research and testing nukes.

Space.com thinks the particle could explain dark matter (although CERN researchers threw cold water on that one, too, telling Nature that "Higgs boson alone wouldn't really help much with the 'big' questions [dark matter, dark energy, etc].") ZeeNews ponders that perhaps inertia (or drag) can be reduced in future technologies, like a jumbo jet. Two Vanderbilt University theoretical physicists propose a "long shot" pipe dream about time travel, but hey, isn't that the job of theoretical physicists?

Other things you didn't know but wanted to about Higgs boson:

—Higgs and the atom smasher: By the numbers (Live Science)

—Why scientists don't like the term 'God particle' for the Higgs boson (Christianity Today)

—CERN scientists inexplicably present Higgs boson findings in Comic Sans (The Verge)

—Hipster pop quiz: What is the Higgs boson (Motherboard, beware the foul mouths in Brooklyn)