Smarter Sundays – The Higgs boson is boring

First of all, for anyone who hasn’t heard about the Higgs boson, please crawl out from under your rock for a moment and watch this video.

If you can’t see the video for whatever reason, or are like me and still don’t quite understand after watching it, let me try to clarify things a little. I am a Classicist, however, so I apologise in advance to any particle physicists who may read this – although I doubt there will be very many.

In particle physics, there’s something called the Standard Model which is a mathematical equation that describes everything, with some exceptions, in the universe. The Standard Model includes things most people would recognise, like electrons and photons, but also some things that are more exotic, including the tau neutrino and gluon.

Another piece of the Standard Model which was theorised back in the 1960s was the Higgs boson, although it was not actually discovered until this past July. It was theorised to exist as part of the model because of something called the Higgs field, which I won’t get into in too much detail here, but essentially, without the Higgs field, the Standard Model falls apart when trying to account for the mass of an object. Yet if you include the Higgs field in equations dealing with mass, everything turns out as planned – except an extra particle (now named the Higgs boson) is also produced. This little extra Higgs boson is what confirms the presence of the Higgs field. Thus, the Higgs boson is important because it is evidence of the Higgs field, and without the Higgs field electrons would just be moving around at light speed, making it impossible for even the most basic atoms to exist.* So clearly the Higgs boson and the Higgs field are very important for explaining why the universe is how it is.

*[I originally said there would be no mass in the universe, but that’s not an entirely accurate way of saying what I meant.]

If the Higgs boson is so important though, why do I say it’s boring?


This ENORMOUS MACHINE doesn’t look very boring.
Flickr via Ars Electronica Festival

Well, the simple answer is I’m not. To me, the Higgs boson is remarkable and I am excited about each new piece of information that pops up. For some of the physicists studying the Higgs boson and the results from the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, however, things could be a bit more exciting.

As I mentioned above, there are a few instances in which the accuracy of the Standard Model breaks down – the main example of this is gravity, and also possibly Dark Energy. Consequently, when the Higgs boson was discovered, there was some hope that it wouldn’t quite fit into what was predicted for it in the Standard Model; if there were some differences between what was expected and what was actually produced, this may have led to clues for how to approach the more problematic topics like gravity and new or modified methods of research. All very exciting stuff for a particle physicist.

It turns out though the Higgs is probably pretty standard. Some tests are still being done to examine things in more depth, but it seems the Standard Model is still holding strong for the Higgs boson. So for now, while the discovery of the Higgs is one of the most significant recent advances in physics, things are developing as expected and it may take an even bigger breakthrough to unlock the remaining mysteries of the universe.

Some interesting videos:


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