So unless you live under a rock, or worse- somewhere with no wifi, you probably heard a lot about the Higgs Boson particle, CERN and something called a Large Hadron Collider over the past few days. Now of course we’re all very impressed with those clever physicists and their mind boggling discovery, but there’s just one tiiiiiny problem… What in the name of Stephen Hawking is a Higgs boson particle, and why would one want to smash hadrons into one another? I decided to do some digging (lest I embarrass myself) and this is what I unearthed.
CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research and they run the world’s largest particle physics lab near Geneva (the lab is also known as CERN). Particle physics is the branch of physics that deals with the properties, relationships, and interactions of subatomic particles. For the past few years most of their efforts have been directed at experiments involving the aforementioned Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The LHC itself is to be found in a massive 27 km long circular tunnel 100 m beneath the ground. As a particle accelerator, what it does is fire beams of protons and ions through a ring of superconducting magnets at something very near the speed of light, with the aim of forcing them to collide with one another. 6 different sites along the tunnel then gather the results of this collision for 6 different experiments, among others proof of the existence of the Higgs boson particle.
The Large Hadron Collider
The Standard Model is something put forth by scientist to try and explain the fundamental particles that our universe is made up out of, the Legos of the universe, if you will. Over the years many experiments have been done, resulting in proof of 11 of the particles predicted by the standard model, the Higgs boson being the only predicted particle that still eludes scientists. This means that finding the Higgs, also known as the God-particle, would validate the model, and not finding it, or finding something else all together, would drastically change our current understanding of the universe.
One billionth of a second after the Big Bang, something known as the Higgs field is believed to have activated. The Higgs field is an invisible, and as yet theoretical field of energy that is present all over the entire cosmos. Some particles are affected by this field, which “drags” them, giving them mass, while other particles, like photons, are not affected at all, and therefore have no mass! I found this amazing example in an Canadian newspaper (which I’m going to copy, as there’s no way I could say it better): Picture Lady Gaga (the particle) walking down the street with a bucket load of photographers (the Higgs field) clustered around her. However, Average Joe (a photon), walking on the same street, gets zero attention from the paparazzi.
To get back on track, RIGHT after the Big Bang, random particles were just pottering about the universe at the speed of light, not really doing anything, but within a fraction of a second they started interacting with the Higgs field and gained mass, thus creating the universe by gaining more and more mass and slowing down as they accumulated mass.
The Higgs boson itself is an indication of the Higgs field, appearing and disappearing in a fraction of a second, so quickly in fact that it’s impossible to detect. (Think of it as the flash of the paparazzi’s cameras.) The only way scientists are therefore able to prove the particle’s existence is by studying and analyzing the effects of its decay; enter our old friend, the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC recreates the Big Bang conditions by sending protons crashing into one another, creating millions of billions of particle collisions every second (just like in the old days). The energy created by proton-proton collisions excites the Higgs field, which resonates at a precise energy, the measurement of which is identical to the mass of the Higgs boson. It’s then, after the Higgs boson winked into and out of existence, that the LHC measures the other particles that the boson deteriorated into.
Colourful arrows pointing at the Higgs boson particle
On 4 July 2012, CERN announced that they had found a particle that behaves in the exact way the Standard Model predicts the Higgs boson ought to behave. They are fairly certain that what they have found is the elusive God-particle, named so because of the nobel laureate Leon Lederman describing it as the thing that he believes “orchestrates the cosmic symphony”, but are classifying the results as preliminary until even further study can provide more reliable data.
So here’s a toast to those brilliant-minded, Hooloovoo-ian physicists at CERN, shedding light on the mysteries of the universe - one collision at a time.
[DISCLAIMER - I do not even possess the faintest understanding of math, not to even mention particle or theoretical physics. I am, however, fairly sure that everything I wrote here is accurate, as I did a reasonable amount of research. But if you spot some discrepancies, please feel free to correct me!]