The Higgs. Whaaaa? July 6, 2012Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CMS, Higgs, LHC, physics, press.
Ok. This post is for all my non-physics friends who have been asking me… What just happened? Why is everyone talking about this Higgs thing!?
It does what!?
Actually, two things. It gives fundamental particles mass. Not much help, eh? Fundamental particles are, well, fundamental – the most basic things in nature. We are made out of arms & legs and a few other bits. Arms & legs and everything else are made out of cells. Cells are made out of molecules. Molecules are made out of atoms. Note we’ve not reached anything fundamental yet – we can keep peeling back the layers of the onion and peer inside. Inside the atom are electrons in a cloud around the nucleus. Yes! We’ve got a first fundamental particle: the electron! Everything we’ve done up to now says it stops with the electron. There is nothing inside it. It is a fundamental particle.
We aren’t done with the nucleus yet, however. Pop that open and you’ll find protons and neutrons. Not even those guys are fundamental, however – inside each of them you’ll find quarks – about 3 of them. Two “up” quarks and a “down” quark in the case of the proton and one “up” quark and two “down” quarks in the case of the neutron. Those quarks are fundamental particles.
The Higgs interacts with the electron and the quarks and gives them mass. You could say it “generates” the mass. I’m tempted to say that without the Higgs those fundamental particles wouldn’t have mass. So, there you have it. This is one of its roles. Without this Higgs, we would not understand at all how electrons and quarks have mass, and we wouldn’t understand how to correctly calculate the mass of an atom!
Now, any physicist who has made it this far is cringing with my last statement – as a quick reading of it implies that all the mass of an atom comes from the Higgs. It turns out that we know of several different ways that mass can be “generated” – and the Higgs is just one of them. It also happens to be the only one that, up until July 4th, we didn’t have any direct proof for. An atom, a proton, etc., has contributions from more than just the Higgs – indeed, most of a proton’s mass (and hence, an atom’s mass) comes from another mechanism. But this is a technical aside. And by reading this you know more than many reporters who are talking about the story!
The Higgs plays a second role. This is a little harder to explain, and I don’t see it discussed much in the press. And, to us physicists, this feels like the really important thing. “Electro-Weak Symmetry Breaking”. Oh yeah! It comes down to this: we want to tell a coherent, unified, story from the time of the big-bang to now. The thing about the big-bang is that was *really* hot. So hot, in fact, that the rules of physics that we see directly around us don’t seem to apply. Everything was symmetric back then – it all looked the same. We have quarks and electrons now, which gives us matter – but then it was so hot that they didn’t really exist – rather, we think, some single type of particle existed. Now, and the universe cooled down from the big bang, making its way towards present day, new particles froze out – perhaps the quarks froze out first, and then the electrons, etc. Let me see how far I can push this analogy… when water freezes, it does so into ice crystals. Say that an electron was one particular shape of ice crystal and a quark was a different shape. So you go from a liquid state where everything looks the same – heck – it is just water, to a solid state where the ice crystals have some set of shapes – and by their shape they become electrons or quarks.
Ok, big deal. It seems like the present day “froze” out of the Big Bang. Well, think about it. If our current particles evolved out of some previous state, then we had sure as hell be able to describe that freezing process. Even better – we had better be able to describe that original liquid – the Big Bang. In fact, you could argue, and we definitely do, that the rules that governed physics at the big bang would have to evolve to describe the rules that describe our present day particles. They should be connected. Unified!! Ha! See how I slipped that word in up above!?
We know about four forces in the universe: the strong (holds a proton together), weak (radioactive decay is an example), electro-magnetism (cell phones, etc. are examples), and gravity. The Higgs is a key player in the unification of the weak force and the electro-magnetic force. Finding it means we actually have a bead on how nature unifies those two forces. That is HUGE! This is a big step along the way to putting all the forces back together. We still have a lot of work to do!
Another technical aside. We think of the first role – giving fundamental particles mass – a consequence of the second – they are not independent roles. The Higgs is key to the unification and in order to be that key, it must also be the source of the fundamental particle’s mass.
How long have you been searching for it?
A loooooong time. We are like archeologists. Nature is what nature is. Our job is to figure out how nature works. We have a mathematical model (called the Standard Model). We change it every time we find an experimental result that doesn’t agree with the calculation. The last time that happened was when we stumble upon the unexpected fact that neutrino’s have mass. The time before that was the addition of the Higgs, and that modification was first proposed in 1964 (it took a few years to become generally accepted). So, I suppose you could say in some sense we’ve been looking for it since 1964!
It isn’t until recently, however (say in the late 90’s) that the machines we use have become powerful enough that we could honestly say we were “in the hunt for the Higgs.” The LHC, actually, had finding the Higgs as one of its major physics goals. There was no guarantee – no reason nature had to work like that – so when we built it we were all a little nervous and excited… ok. a lot nervous and excited.
So, why did it take so long!? The main reason is we hardly ever make it in our accelerators! It is very very massive!! So it is very hard to make. Even at the LHC we make one every 3 hours… The LHC works by colliding protons together at a very high speed (almost the speed of light). We do that more than 1,000,000 times a second… and we make a Higgs only once every 3 hours. The very definition of “needle in a haystack!”
Who made this discovery?
Two very large teams of physicists, and a whole bunch of people running the LHC accelerator at CERN. The two teams are the two experiments: ATLAS and CMS. I and my colleagues at UW are on ATLAS. If you hear someone say “I discovered the Higgs” they are using the royal-I. This is big science. Heck – the detector is half a (American) football field long, and about 8 or 9 stories tall and wide. This is the sort of work that is done by lots of people and countries working together. ATLAS currently has people from 38 countries – the USA being one of them.
What does a Cocktail Party have to do with it?
The cocktail party analogy is the answer to why some fundamental particles are more massive than particles (sadly, not why I have to keep letting my belt out year-after-year).
This is a cartoon of a cocktail party. Someone very famous has just entered the room. Note how everyone has clumped around them! If they are trying to get to the other side of the room, they are just not going to get there very fast!!
Now, lets say I enter the room. I don’t know that many people, so while some friends will come up and talk to me, it will be nothing like that famous person. So I will be able to get across the room very quickly.
The fact that I can move quickly because I interact with few people means I have little mass. The famous person has lots of interactions and can’t move quickly – and in this analogy they have lots of mass.
Ok. Bringing it back to the Higgs. The party and the people – that is the Higgs field. How much a particle interacts with the Higgs field determines its mass. The more it interacts, the more mass is “generated.”
And that is the analogy. You’ve been reading a long time. Isn’t this making you thirsty? Go get a drink!
Really, is this that big a deal?
Yes. This is a huge piece of the puzzle. This work is definitely worth a Nobel prize – look for them to award one to the people that first proposed it in 1960 (there are 6 of them, one has passed away – no idea how the committee will sort out the max of 3 they can give it to). We have confirmed a major piece of how nature works. In fact, this was the one particle that the Standard Model predicted that we hadn’t found. We’d gotten all the rest! We now have a complete picture of the Standard Model is it is time to start work on extending the Standard Model. For example, dark matter and dark energy are not yet in the Standard Model. We have no figured out how to fully unify everything we know about.
No. The economy won’t see an up-tick or a down-tick because of this. This is pure research – we do it to understand how nature and the universe around us works. There are sometimes, by-luck, spin-offs. And there are people that work with us who take it on as one of their tasks to find spin offs. But that isn’t the reason we do this.
What is next?
Ok. You had to ask that. So… First, we are sure we have found a new boson, but the real world – and data, is a bit messy. We have looked for it, and expect it to appear in several different places. It appeared in most of them – one place it seems to be playing hide and seek (where the Higgs decays to tau’s – a tau is very much like a heavy electron). Now, only one of the two experiments has presented results in the tau’s (CMS), so we have to wait for my experiment, ATLAS, to present its results before we get worried.
Second, and this is what we’d be doing no matter what happened to the tau’s, is… HEY! We have a shiny new particle! We are going to spend some years looking at it from every single angle possible, taking it out for a test drive, you know – kicking the tires. There is actually a scientific point to doing that – there are other possible theories out there that predict the existence of a Higgs that looks exactly like the Standard Model Higgs except for some subtle differences. So we will be looking at this new Higgs every-which way to see if we can see any of those subtle differences.
ATLAS and CMS also do a huge amount of other types of physics – none of which we are talking about right now – and we will continue working on those as well.
Why do you call it the God Particle!?
We don’t. (especially check out the Pulp Fiction mash-up picture).
What will you all discover next?
I’ll get back to you on that…
Whew. I’m spent!