ATHENA METAXAS Most of the scientific news that Catalyst reports is related to medicine or biology. This is all well and good, but I thought it would be a nice change of pace to talk about something from the physics world (even though I am a chemist myself, but I digress…). And that “something” from the physics world is the Higgs boson, also known in popular media as the “God particle.”
What is the Higgs boson?
Before we dive into what exactly the Higgs boson is, it is necessary to have a brief understanding of the standard model of particle physics. Physicists who adhere to the notion of particle physics attempt to reduce the universe to the most basic building blocks. Thanks to particle physics, scientists have discovered atoms, protons, neutrons, quarks, and leptons. The standard model describes how these particles interact with gravity, electromagnetic forces, strong forces, and weak forces. Scientists believe that each of these fundamental forces have their own specific bosons.
In the 1960’s, a British scientist named Peter Higgs theorized that particles, which were massless when the universe began, acquired mass soon after interacting with a field that permeates space, later known as the Higgs field. This theoretical field is responsible for imparting mass to matter.
Wait a minute. Doesn’t matter inherently have mass?
Not according to the standard model. We tend to think that matter have associated masses because we see the number on the scale. Higgs’s theory, however, offers a different explanation. If particles have no inherent mass, then they can gain mass by interacting with particles—the Higgs boson—in the Higgs field. The Higgs field permeates the entire universe, which is why we can say matter outside of the Earth’s gravitational field possesses mass.
Okay, so how can scientists prove the existence of the Higgs boson?
The search for the Higgs boson has been ongoing since Peter Higgs formulated his theory in the 1960’s. It wasn’t until July 4, 2012 that scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland reported that they discovered a particle that behaves as theorized for a Higgs boson. The results have been published with a high degree of certainty, although further testing is underway to corroborate the findings. Testing the Higgs theory is difficult because the Higgs field is believed to be incredibly unstable and scientists can only study the decay products to prove its existence. Scientists, however, are cautiously optimistic and are calling the particle they found “Higgs-like.”
Why do we care about the Higgs boson?
The Higgs boson could possibly be used to study dark matter, which makes up most of our universe. The ability to study even more of our universe would be a boon to science. More importantly, the discovery of the Higgs boson would validate the standard model of particle physics and everything we currently know about the universe. Pursuing the hunt for the Higgs boson was a huge gamble, but it seems that scientists may have won. For a slightly more detailed version of what was mentioned in this article, please watch the accompanying video.