Saturday, July 14, 2012

Left Side of the Aisle #65 - Part 4

And Another Thing: Higgs boson found; so what?

This has been all over the news, so I bet you've heard about it even if you didn't understand it - which wouldn't be surprising because the people in the media telling you about it probably didn't understand it, either.

On July 4, two teams at the European Organization for Nuclear Research - known as CERN after the acronym formed from its French name - announced that after years of smashing subatomic particles together at nearly the speed of light they had found a new elementary particle which was, in the cautious words of scientists, consistent with the characteristics predicted for the Higgs boson.

Put another way, they had all but certainly found what had come to be nicknamed the "God particle" because of the way it cements the standard model of subatomic physics.

Simply put, even overly-simply put, there are two types of subatomic particles: fermions, usually associated with matter, and bosons, which are the force carriers between other particles. An electron is a fermion; a photon, which can be thought of as a particle of light, is a boson.

Here was the issue: There is a whole zoo of subatomic particles, but they could be organized into groups based on related characteristics. So scientists had this nice - rather complex, but still organized - pattern of the relationships among various families of particles and the individual particles that make up those families. Each particle has its own characteristics. But a question remained: Why did they have those particular characteristics? All fermions, for example, are essentially point particles - they essentially have zero volume. So why do they - and how can they - have different masses? Where does mass come from?

The Higgs boson was the hypothetical answer to that question. The Higgs boson - named for Peter Higgs, the British physicist who came up with the idea - would make up the Higgs field, which permeates all of space. Different particles would interact differently with the Higgs field, some more strongly than others. The more strongly a given particle interacted, the more energy it would take to move it through the field. Since the amount of energy it takes to move something, that is, to overcome its inertia, is the measure of mass, the Higgs field would be why things have mass and why different things have different masses.

That hypothesis specified the characteristics the Higgs boson would have to have in order to fit the idea. And it is a particle with those characteristics which researchers at CERN now believe they have found. The picture, by the way, is of one of the experimental results - such pictures being part of the data to be analyzed - that gave the scientists cause to think that.

Years ago, Bill Cosby, back when he was funny instead of an obnoxious old man shouting "get off my lawn," had a comedy album called "Why Is There Air?" In a way, this is like that: It's one of those fundamental "why" questions, ones sometimes so basic we don't think to ask them. Why is there mass? Now scientists think they know. And how cool is that.


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