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Why Do Physicists Care So Much about Finding the Higgs Boson?

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higgs boson event display

A particle, which might be a Higgs boson, decaying into muons in the ATLAS detector. Credit: ATLAS Experiment/CERN

If you’ve read anything about the Higgs boson, you probably know that this particle is special because it can explain how fundamental particles acquire mass. Specifically, evidence of the boson is evidence that an omnipresent Higgs field exists—one that slows particles down and makes them heavy.

But there’s a misconception that sometimes creeps into this explanation. The Higgs field does not explain the origin of all mass. “Many uninformed physicists have been saying that for years,” says theoretical physicist Chris Quigg of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

“We have actually understood the source of most of the mass in the proton [for example] for some time,” Quigg says. Most mass—including your own—comes from the strong force, a force of nature that keeps the nucleus of atoms bound together.

If you’re concerned that you’ve been hoodwinked into celebrating a particle with slight implications, fear not. “It’s actually much more exciting than that, and when you hear the whole story, the symmetries and laws, it’s more amazing to think that this works,” says Columbia University physicist Tim Andeen. There’s a more complex question involved, one that has grander implications for the way the forces of nature work. The Higgs mass-giving mechanism is key to explaining a mystery called “spontaneous electroweak symmetry breaking.” Before your eyes glaze over, let’s break down that vocabulary a bit.

When you think of symmetry, you probably think of beautiful faces, Classical architecture, and an Art 101 course on drawing. Physicists think of symmetry in terms of sameness. For example, because we can do an experiment in two different places and get the same result, we know that the universe is spatially symmetric. The laws of physics don’t change with time, either, which means the universe is temporally symmetric. These symmetries are inextricably linked to the laws of the universe, such as the conservation of momentum and energy. If you hit upon a symmetry, there must be a law of conservation accompanying it—and vice-versa.

Spontaneous,” in this case, implies a certain amount of random chance—nothing has been predetermined. Imagine going to a dinner party and sitting down at a round table, only to realize that no one is sure whether they should take the bread roll to the left or bread roll to the right. At some point, someone will just grab a roll—spontaneously breaking the symmetry of the place settings.

Electroweak refers to two forces of nature: the electromagnetic force, which unites electricity and magnetism, and the weak force, which governs radioactive decay. Why have these two forces been squelched together? Physicists have long been attempting to unify the forces of nature, both because a single description is more simple and elegant, and because at very high energies, these forces appear to become one single force.

In the 1960s, many physicists were working on reconciling the electromagnetic and weak forces into a unified theory. Three physicists in particular—Sheldon Lee Glashow, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg—developed something called “electroweak theory,” which neatly extended our understanding of electromagnetism to incorporate the weak force.

Yet the theorists hit a snag. In order to combine these forces, they needed to introduce a set of force-carrying particles for the weak force to complement the photon—the mass-less particle that carries the electromagnetic force. For the electromagnetic and weak forces to unify, their force carriers would have to be symmetric. In consequence, none of them should have any mass.

But it turned out that the weak force–carrying particles (the W and Z bosons) did have mass. In fact, they were quite heavy. The Higgs mechanism (which had been proposed and developed by several theorists in addition to Peter Higgs) offers the solution. It suggests that when the Higgs field interacts with the W and Z bosons, the Higgs field spontaneously breaks the symmetry that would have kept the W and Z massless. It masks their true massless nature. Finding the Higgs, therefore, is part of a larger quest to unify the forces of nature, with implications that sweep across the laws that govern the universe.

There’s another reason to care about the Higgs boson. Quigg has written extensively on the consequences of a Higgs-free universe. He points out that when Salam and Weinberg were working out how the Higgs mechanism might help unify electromagnetism and the weak force, they realized that in addition to giving mass to the heavy force-carriers, the Higgs might also give mass to other fundamental particles.* The electron, therefore, would owe its mass to the Higgs field. Without that mass, electrons wouldn’t hook up with nuclei to form atoms. “That would mean no valence bonding, so much of chemistry, essentially all, would vanish,” Quigg says. “Therefore no solid structures and no template for life.”


*Correction (11/30/2012): This post was edited after posting to remove Sheldon Glashow from this sentence. Glashow was involved in the creation of electroweak theory but it was Salam and Weinberg who combined electroweak symmetry breaking with the Higgs mechanism.


About the Author: Daisy Yuhas is an associate editor at Scientific American Mind. You can follow her on Twitter, @daisyyuhas

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gsvasktg 8:33 am 11/22/2012

    There is no strong, weak, etc force at all. Space comprises a sea of components (real things like particles) that interact with its adjacent units. When 8 of these interact in a symmetrical and simultaneous mode the center acts as a unit count which the higher count rate components see it as a “negative” unitary state and GRAVITATE towards it. There is no strong force except this interactive drift. Further in space there is an harmonic oscillatory state amount such components that actually provide potential /kinetic energy that creates all the so called forces at different levels. See PHO state and Abstract pdf files in my website ” “www dot kapillavastu dot com slash index dot html” and all the mathematical details are in it as a complete axiomatic theory. contact “gsvasktg at gmail dot com” for any clarification.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Dredd 2:09 pm 11/22/2012

    And that would help with abiotic evolution, the evolution that preceded biotic evolution.
    Then we might figure out when intelligence evolved.

    Link to this
  3. 3. kongrooo 4:44 pm 11/22/2012

    Sounds like some crazy stuff wow

    Link to this
  4. 4. gpussetto 7:54 pm 11/22/2012

    Shared from Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang
    “The Higgs field acts like a variable light switch that controls whether forces and particles behave differently or not. If the value of the Higgs field is zero, the field is “switched off” and has no effect. Consequently, the strong, electromagnetic, and weak forces are equivalent and the matter particles behave indistinguishably from one another. This is the situation of greatest symmetry. However, if the Higgs field is “switched on,” the forces split into different types and all the matter particles develop different masses, charges, and interactions. The differences depend on the strength of the Higgs field, which can take any positive value. A greater strength produces a greater difference between the types of particles and interactions. In this way, the Higgs field is responsible for breaking the symmetry between the elementary particles, leading to a complex pattern of particles.”

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  5. 5. gpussetto 7:58 pm 11/22/2012

    Shared from Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang
    The temperature required to switch off the Higgs fields and reveal the underlying simplicity is extraordinarily high, about 1027 degrees. This is more than a trillion times beyond the range of any existing laboratory. But these temperatures were reached within the first 10-35 seconds after the big bang. So the idea of grand unification enticed particle physicists and cosmologists into exploring the very early universe. The siren call was this: the laws of physics get simpler as one goes back to the beginning; you can understand what happened at the big bang.

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  6. 6. ottokrog 8:51 am 11/23/2012

    I don’t think the qualities required for The Higgs particle to explain the standard model is there, and I don’t think they will be found.

    Neither do I think, that supersymmetry will be recognized in futuristic science.

    I know I am a pain in the butt, but I believe in a complete different approach to high energy physics in the future. My vision is that future science will engulf consciousness. The mind and the spirit will be explainable through physics.

    I have been a fan of Sir Roger Penrose for many years. He was the first scientist to say that consciousness should be found in the quantum field rather than in the brain. I am so much a fan, that I made my own theory out of the idea that consciousness might be explained through a better understanding of antimatter and multiverse dimensions.

    My idea is that antimatter is the mirror of this universe, and that antimatter might be where memory is located.

    I think that the subconscious mind and consciousness are located in multiverse dimensions in the form of antimatter.

    The original standard model predicted no mass at all. That made no sence to scientists, so Peter Higgs predicted The Higgs Boson, purely from mathematics. I think the original standard model was right, particles does not exist. The physical universe is a flow of energy from minus infinite energy to plus infinite energy.

    If you would like to know more, then you can watch a full videopresentation of my theory on my blog:

    Link to this
  7. 7. Na g n o s t ic 1:37 pm 11/24/2012

    The Universe is nothing but the herringbone pattern on a tweed smoking jacket, worn by a meerschaum puffing old gentleman looking at himself within a hall of mirrors.

    Link to this
  8. 8. ebittencourt 5:10 pm 11/27/2012

    I thought Higgs Boson was a person who got lost

    Link to this
  9. 9. Wayne Williamson 4:53 pm 11/29/2012

    So are they telling me that the fictitious Higgs was used to unify electromagnetism and the weak force…
    I thought it just had to do with the amount of energy…

    Link to this
  10. 10. Miroslav 6:13 am 12/2/2012

    Higgs boson could not be the miracle particle (God particle) giving mass to other particles since Higgs boson has a mass (125 GeV/c2). The mass means the vibrant force potential of bound particles in accordance with the book “Attraction and Repulsion in the Universe”.
    Thus, we must have at least two particles bound together to get a mass for such a couple. Even the Standard Model arose from the theory of vibrating. A stable particle in order to vibrate needs to be bound to other particle (by invisible spring if it is a bond).

    The particle as is a neutron has lots of the elemental particles (probably 10^18). They vibrate in neutron volume as atoms or molecules vibrate in a gaseous state (heat). These vibrations run in all directions and therefore a sum of their vibrant (vectorial) forces is equal to zero. But the sum of all stiffnesses of bonds (stiffnesses of vibrations) is the mass of the neutron. In case that these elemental parts of the matter (the neutron) interact with a flying particle being the same in nature, they interfere – they collide. The result of that (sticky) collision is the birth of gravitational force. If gravitational force cannot move the matter (the neutron) then the matter (the neutron) gets its wage.
    Conclusion is that the mass is the potential for gravitons to mediate gravitational force and therefore could not mean any particle.

    Link to this
  11. 11. DougM 3:53 am 12/13/2012

    Never in my entire life has so much balderdash been inspired by a single discovery! (Well, maybe Relativity could compete).

    A lot of the opinions I have seen expressed here and on other sites (Notably CERN) seem to be based on the opinion that “My Theory is just as valid as YOUR Theory, because they are both “just theories”. BUT THAT IS NOT THE CASE!

    In order to be taken seriously any theory has to have a sound basis on FACTS which have been tested and verified, AND answer to the rigorous logic of mathematics to exptrapolate something new. Simply quoting someone (or something else) is NOT a substitute for the long and difficult work which it took to get to the Theory of “Forces” (Faraday) or the prediction of Electro-Weak or other “Theories”.

    That said, it must always be recognized that ALL theories about how Nature works are no more than Analogies based on our own limited senses and the constructs of existing Mathematical techniques. Bald statements such as “There is no strong, weak, etc force at all” (gsvasktg) conveniently ignore all the OTHER things which can be explained by the Standard model – not to mention the endless amount of experimental evidence which supports that particular “Theory”.

    Anyone wishing to dismiss the Standard Model (Flawed as it admittedly is) needs must come up with an alternative which is fully – read ‘better’ – integrated with all the experimental evidence and mathematical logic which has got us this far.

    We will, one day, hopefully understand how the Universe works, but that journey has just begun.

    Link to this
  12. 12. debu 7:34 am 05/14/2013

    Revised ATOMIC MODEL of Durgadas Datta is developed without strong and weak forces in balloon inside balloon opposite charge varying radius spherical vibrating blob with neutrons at common center parabolic rotating etc etc is new game of the town.

    Link to this

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