Saturday, July 07, 2012

Higgs Bosons: What’s the Big Deal?

The news wires have been buzzing this week with the possible discovery, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, of the long-sought Higgs Boson—aka the “God particle.” Just that nickname is enough to set journalistic hearts a-flutter. But, as always in high-energy physics, there’s more to the drama than meets the eye via standard news accounts. This is not to say that I, a mere dilletante, really understand it, but reading lots of accounts and seeing several videos has made some things clearer. Perhaps I can convey that to a few readers.

To begin with, the real action here lies with the proposed Higgs field, the Higgs Boson being only an indication that the theorized field actually exists. But the Higgs field is not like the usual fields—the magnetic field around earth, or the gravitational field around our sun, or an electromagnetic field around a generator—we’re familiar with. Those fields require an energy source, like the sun, to generate them; furthermore, the size of the force (of gravity, say, from the sun) varies with the distance from the energy source. So, the farther we get from the sun or the earth, the less force we feel from its gravity field. In short, most fields dissipate with distance because the number of particles constituting the field (virtual particles) is fewer (this last is due to the quantum understanding of fields, which used to be thought of as continuous, but are now thought of as composed of particles, like all else).

The Higgs field is not like that. Theoretically at least, the Higgs field remains the same throughout the universe even though there’s no source generating it (if I understand it correctly, the Higgs field would have been generated in the first nano-seconds of and by the Big Bang). Its force doesn’t dissipate with distance because of this lack of a specific energy source. It’s everywhere.

Lawrence DiStasi

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