Top Ten Amazing Higgs Boson Facts!

To celebrate the publication of The Particle at the End of the Universe, here’s a cheat sheet for you: mind-bending facts about the Higgs boson you can use to impress friends and prospective romantic entanglements.

1. It’s not the “God particle.” Sure, people call it the God particle, because that’s the name Leon Lederman attached to it in a book of the same name. Marketing genius, but wildly inaccurate. (Aren’t they all God’s little particles?) As Lederman and his co-author Dick Teresi explain in the first chapter of their book, “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”

2. Nobel prizes are coming. But we don’t know to whom. The idea behind the Higgs boson arose in a number of papers in 1963 and 1964. One by Philip Anderson, one by Francois Englert and Robert Brout (now deceased), two by Peter Higgs, and one by Gerald Guralnik, Richard Hagen, and Tom Kibble. By tradition, the Nobel in Physics is given to three people or fewer in any one year, so there are hard choices to be made. (Read Chapter 11!) The experimental discovery is certainly Nobel-worthy as well, but that involves something like 7,000 people spread over two experimental collaborations, so it’s even more difficult. It’s possible someone associated with the actual construction of the Large Hadron Collider could win the prize. Or someone could convince the Nobel committee to ditch the antiquated three-person rule, and that person could be awarded the Peace Prize.

3. We’ve probably discovered the Higgs, but we’re not completely sure. We’ve discovered something — there’s a new particle, no doubt about that. But like any new discovery, it takes time (and in this case, more data) to be absolutely sure you understand what you’ve found. A major task over the next few years will be to pin down the properties of the new particle, and test whether it really is the Higgs that was predicted almost five decades ago. It’s better if it’s not, of course; that means there’s new and exciting physics to be learned. So far it looks like it is the Higgs boson, so it’s okay to talk as if that’s what we’ve discovered, at least until contrary evidence comes in.

4. The Large Hadron Collider is outrageously impressive. The LHC, the machine in Geneva, Switzerland, that discovered the Higgs, is the most complicated machine ever built. (Chapter 5.) It’s a ring of magnets and experimental detectors, buried 100 meters underground, 27 kilometers in circumference. It takes protons, 100 trillion at a time, and accelerates them to 99.999999% the speed of light, then smashes them together over 100 million times per second. The beam pipe through which the protons travel is evacuated so that its density is lower than you would experience standing on the Moon, and the surrounding superconducting magnets are cooled to a temperature lower than that of intergalactic space. The total kinetic energy of the protons moving around the ring is comparable to that of a speeding freight train. To pick one of countless astonishing numbers out of a hat, if you laid all the electrical cable in the LHC end-to-end it would stretch for about 275,000 kilometers, enough to wrap the Earth almost seven times.

5. The LHC was never going to destroy the world. Remember that bit of scaremongering? People were worried that the LHC would create a black hole that would swallow the Earth, and we would all die. (It was never quite explained why the physicists who built the machine would be willing to sacrifice their own lives so readily.) This was silly, mostly because there’s nothing going on inside the LHC that doesn’t happen out there in space all the time. There was a real setback on September 19, 2008, when a magnet kind of exploded, but nobody was hurt. The current casualty list from the LHC mostly consists of people’s favorite theories of new physics, which are continually being constrained as new data comes in.

6. The Higgs boson isn’t really all that important. The boson is just some particle. What’s important is something called the Higgs mechanism. What really gets people excited is the Higgs field, from which the particle arises. Modern physics — in particular, quantum field theory — tells us that all particles are just vibrations in one field or another. The photon is a vibration in the electromagnetic field, the electron is a vibration in the electron field, and so on. (That’s why all electrons have the same mass and charge — they’re just different vibrations in the same underlying field that fills the universe.) It’s the Higgs field, lurking out there in empty space, that makes the universe interesting. Finding the boson is exciting because it means the field is really there. This is why it’s hard to explain the importance of the Higgs in just a few words — you first have to explain field theory!

7. The Higgs mechanism makes the universe interesting. If it weren’t for the Higgs field (or something else that would do the same trick), the elementary particles of nature like electrons and quarks would all be massless. The laws of physics tell us that the size of an atom depends on the mass of the electrons that are attached to it — the lighter the electrons are, the bigger the atom would be. Massless electrons imply atoms as big as the universe — in other words, not atoms at all, really. So without the Higgs, there wouldn’t be atoms, there wouldn’t be chemistry, there wouldn’t be life as we know it. It’s a pretty big deal.

8. Your own mass doesn’t come from the Higgs. We were careful in the previous point to attribute the mass of “elementary” particles to the Higgs mechanism. But most of the mass in your body comes from protons and neutrons, which are not elementary particles at all. They are collections of quarks held together by gluons. Most of their mass comes from the interaction energies of those quarks and gluons, and would be essentially unchanged if the Higgs weren’t there at all. So without the Higgs, we could still have massive protons and neutrons, although their properties would be very different.

9. There will be no jet packs. People sometimes think that since the Higgs has something to do with “mass,” it’s somehow connected to gravity, and that by learning to control it we might be able to turn gravity on and off. Sadly not true. As above, most of your mass doesn’t come from the Higgs field at all. But even putting that aside, there’s no realistic prospect of “controlling the Higgs field.” Think of it this way: it costs energy to change the value of the Higgs field in any region of space, and energy implies mass (through Einstein’s famous E = mc2). If you were to take a region of space the size of a golf ball and turn the Higgs field off inside of it, you would end up with an amount of mass larger than that of the Earth, and create a black hole in the process. Not a feasible plan. We haven’t been looking for the Higgs because of the promise of future technological applications — it’s because we want to understand how the world works.

10. The easy part is over. The discovery of the Higgs completes the Standard Model; the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. That’s pretty impressive; it’s a project that we, as a species, have been working on for at least 2,500 years, since Democritus first suggested atoms back in ancient Greece. This leaves plenty of physics that we don’t yet understand, from dark matter to the origin of the universe, not to mention complicated problems like turbulence and neuroscience and politics. Indeed, we’re hoping that studying the Higgs might provide new clues about dark matter and other puzzles. But we do now understand the basic building blocks of the world we immediately see around us. It’s a triumph for human beings; the future history of physics will be divided into the pre-Higgs era and the post-Higgs era. Here’s to the new era!

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68 Responses to Top Ten Amazing Higgs Boson Facts!

  1. Marshall Eubanks says:

    I wouldn’t regard the standard model as really complete until the axion is nailed down. I understand that YMMV.

  2. Richard M says:

    What’s the diff? Would you like to claim (delta t)/(delta t) != 1?

  3. Meh says:

    I would argue that while we do have a complete algebraic understanding of the laws of physics underlying everyday life, we are still trying to complete our geometric understanding. So it’s really both yes and no. You could say that the geometric understanding is our ability to conceptualize the algebra we’ve been using all these years. You could also say that we do have a complete understanding based on existing proofs and that the geometric understanding is 95% complete. I do believe that Sheldon Cooper syndrome tends to take over in some people when they read what Sean is saying. By that, I mean that we know there is no known limit to the universe, so there will always be something else to learn that we don’t know. We were sure that our galaxy was the universe, then that the universe was the universe, now that the multiverse is the universe. There are people who want to find a reason to fight and argue and blow things out of proportion, it happens. The real question to be answered is if limits truly exist at all or if space just goes through a seemingly infinite number of phase changes.

    EDit: and now that I say that, I always jump at the opportunity to plug Craig Hogan’s experiment. done.

  4. jpd says:

    no, i am just saying dismissing the details as unimportant is
    not a good idea. and the details of ‘everyday physiscs’ are not ‘completely understood’

  5. Meh says:

    very true, the finer details are not understood. But I think everyone knows what Sean was saying. People just tend to blow it out of proportion. Have you noticed that on the internet in the last few years? I think writing things instead of hearing the inflection in someone’s voice tends to leave out a lot of details about what they are actually saying. But Sean may have covered that on a previous topic, that he only has 1000 words or less (something like that) so he can’t really write half a book about it. The finer details about the finer details get left out. But to be thorough, he did say that it leaves plenty of physics that we don’t yet understand. Those were actually his exact words, so I think he did do a pretty decent job of covering it. Though he didn’t use your exact words, again, I think anyone intelligent enough to understand math and physics (such as yourself) is intelligent enough to know what he means and that a lot of people are angry about something that he clearly addressed.

  6. Meh says:

    @David Jacobs,

    There’s also a split between the authorities on whether or not time actually exists at all. Some physicists think that time is the result of space and some physicists think that space is the result of time. And a large portion believe the 2 exist together because it’s not their field of study and they’re too busy to worry about it, lol. If I wanted to get Higgsy, I would say that the concept of breaking symmetry in order to give birth to the universe would be good evidence towards time being a result of space. That’s purely my opinion though.

  7. C. Takacs says:

    @Meh,
    On a purely logical level,
    In #53 you say “I would argue that while we do have a complete algebraic understanding of the laws of physics underlying everyday life, we are still trying to complete our geometric understanding.”
    then you go on to say in #56:
    “There’s also a split between the authorities on whether or not time actually exists at all.”

    If there is no time, then E=mc2 falls pretty flat. The ‘c2′ part is about the ‘speed of light squared’, a velocity squared. A velocity as you know is d/t. Your ‘t’ can never be zero, operationally or otherwise if you intend to calculate. Time is not some mystical thing to be bandied about like you can take it or leave it like an opinion or some imaginary mathematical space to fudge your answers. Time operationally is itself a ratio of one distance over another with only as much accuracy as the clock used. Without time, you have no ability to measure any type of change.

    I only bring this up to demonstrate that if what you say in your comment #53 is true, then what you say in #56 can not also be true. If what you say in #56 is true, namely, that there is “a split between authorities on whether time actually exisits at all” then what you (and Sean??) are saying in #53 is false by your own argument, since if the very existence of time is in any kind of question, there certainly can be no consensus of ‘complete algebraic understanding’ about the laws of ‘everyday’ physics… since they ALL depend on a period of time to function, much less be calculated.

    In short, if you jettison time, or play word games with it and make it disappear with a ‘Higgsy’ hand waving, you also jettison all velocity equations, and thusly, your energy and mass equations. At that point, symmetry breaking or not, you have nothing to left to call physics.

  8. David Jacobs says:

    NB. Just an additional note. To explain mass, the Higgs field would have to relate mass to three things, because we know mass is related to them.

    1. Energy

    2. Inertia

    3. Gravity

    It doesn’t relate mass to any of them, though there are hints that it might one day contribute to relating mass to inertia. Inertia comes into everyday life a lot – it’s what you feel when your car drives around a corner, and you feel inertial forces pulling you over to one side. It has no complete explanation, but the standard view is that the gravity of all the distant galaxies combines to cause it. This idea that it’s a long distance effect, known as Mach’s principle, has problems. Recently there have been attempts to describe inertia as a local effect, and if the Higgs field were one day able to help explain inertia, it would be as a local effect.

    So of the three things the Higgs field needs to relate mass to, the only one that looks possible is one where it would totally overturn our present understanding. This shows how very far from the truth the idea that we completely understand the physics underneath everyday life is.

    By the way, in post 34:

    “I had read many articles which included statements such as “not all mass comes from the Higgs” but then would not elaborate (including one in SciAm). Thanks for the explanation.”

    That is because when the physics surrounding the Higgs boson is communicated to the public, there is a reluctance to say that the 98% of mass which remains unexplained is in the form of energy. That’s because many people know about the mass-energy equivalence, E = Mc^2, and so mentioning it would go near the point that the Higgs field doesn’t explain the mass-energy equivalence. But if the public knew that, then even a non-physicist would be able to see that the situation is not what they’re portraying it as, because even though he doesn’t understand it, he knows how important that mass-energy equation is. That’s probably why you couldn’t find a detailed explanation. The other 98% of the mass in everyday objects is in the energy that binds more complex particles together, but we don’t understand this mass.

  9. Entropy says:

    @26 Weather is the canonical example of a chaotic system. We could exactly describe the weather tomorrow if we had perfect knowledge of initial conditions. However, in a chaotic system, small inaccuracies in the initial conditions grow exponentially so that predictions are worthless within a few of the system’s characteristic times. We understand the physics behind the weather. We simply don’t have the measurement precision necessary to make perfect predictions. Take a look at the Hurricane Sandy projections to see how impressively close we can come even with our imperfect data.

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  11. Meh says:

    @ 57,

    I hear you man, talk to the physicists who don’t believe time exists. But I think the difference between the two sides of the argument over the existence of time is side 1: time is a change in spatial dimensions and is an illusion as a result. side 2: the change in spatial dimensions is the result of the dimension of time. There are physicists out there trying to prove that relativity theory is incorrect; my point being that anyone can question anything they like, no matter how out of bounds it may seem. My comment on time was just a reply to David Jacobs intended to illustrate that he’s correct. There are certain things we haven’t reached a consensus on. Yet while we don’t know what time is, we still understand the laws that govern it. Time moves in 1 direction. It is required for our universe to exist and to describe any physical phenomena. Understanding the Laws does not translate to knowing every detail about an event. Just like judicial laws, the laws of physics provide a rough outline of what’s allowed to happen with the finer details being left to peer review analysis. It is possible to make this outline more accurate as needed; but in all instances of physics, we are still increasing that level of accuracy. So yes, the *laws* are understood, but can always be more accurate. Every single physical phenomenon is not understood. We will always be gaining more and more accurate information about the laws of nature, but as it stands, we do understand nature enough to completely understand everyday life. We are lacking in our ability to calculate and in the level of detail that we understand those laws, but we understand them to the point that we can completely describe everyday life. By everyday life I mean : does it matter if a single atom of carbon breaks down in your body? no. If all carbon atoms suddenly became unstable then yes, that would be a problem. But I guess it’s another argument like the argument over time existing; yes, quantum laws do effect everyday life if the collective quantum effects of all quantum states in our everyday objects are measured, but no in the sense that there is no way to measure that with our current methods of calculation without it deteriorating into chaos (and we just flat out can’t fully measure a quantum system, though I shouldn’t have to say that, I am). We have an outline for quantum phenomena, and because my body has broken down into a pile of goop then I can safely assume that all composite quantum systems in my body are working just fine, though I have no calculable evidence that each quantum state is as it should be.

  12. Meh says:

    uhh, should read “has not” broken down….

  13. David Jacobs says:

    Just to clarify what I was saying – underneath every physical law there is something going on. Learning what it is is called finding the interpretation of the physical law. We know from history that our understanding of what is underneath the laws tends to move along a few decades (or more) behind our knowledge of the laws themselves.

    For instance, put a hot object next to a cold object, they both start moving towards a temperature in the middle. A few centuries ago people used think that cold flowed out of the cold object into the hot object, and heat flowed out of the hot object into the cold object. Some decided that there’s only heat and the absence of heat, so they were getting nearer the correct interpretation. They decided there was a substance called caloric that flowed into the cold object from the hot object. At this point they were wrong, but they could in theory have derived the laws at that point, or some of them, because the laws are separate from the understanding. Nowadays we know that heat is particles moving around more rapidly within the hot object. This is transmitted to the particles in the colder object. The interpretation may well go on improving, but it’s a lot better now.

    At present we have many laws with no interpretation, and no understanding, whatever they tell you. We don’t know what inertia is (there are several different versions of Mach’s principle, and they contradict each other), we don’t know what time is (standard theory says it HAS to be an illusion in our perception, but this doesn’t fit with a lot of things), we don’t understand matter (because the nature of the wave function is the biggest mystery we’ve ever come up against, we simply don’t know what it is), we don’t understand gravity (because when you drop something in the kitchen in everyday life, our physics describes how it moves towards the ground with great precision, but not why it starts moving in the first place). So we don’t understand many of the laws we have that describe the physics of everyday life. But we will, and probably this century. We always get there, way to go…

  14. Meh says:

    Everything you’re saying is true, but is irrelevant because you are confused about the statement itself. We don’t need to know what inertia is to understand how it effects our everyday lives as humans. We only need to know the laws of inertia. You are incorrect in that we do actually understand all of the laws we have that describe the physics of everyday life; you just aren’t happy with the degree of accuracy at which we understand those laws and keep dragging the concept outside of the limits of everyday life. The degree of accuracy that we understand them is enough to explain everyday life. You don’t need to know why an object travels towards the ground in the first place in order to know that it is going to travel towards the ground every single time. That’s the law of everyday gravity (physics) at a human scale; that it’s going to travel towards the ground every single time. Your argument over the wave function shows that you don’t understand the statement because the wave function is quantum mechanics and we don’t need quantum mechanics to explain everyday life. An understanding of quantum mechanics increases our ability to manipulate nature (one day), but is not needed to describe how a car operates or how your microwave works or how you are alive or why you die. It can increase our level of detail in understanding those things, but is not needed to understand and utilize them.

    What you are saying is correct, but what you don’t understand is that it is not needed. That is the barrier you are having trouble overcoming. We don’t need to understand quantum gravity or the origin of gravity to understand gravity experienced every day. We don’t need to know the greatest lower and least upper boundaries of the laws to have a complete understanding of them because we will never reach those limits. Even if we had a complete theory of gravity we would still ask what’s beyond that? and then what’s beyond that? “what is past that limit” is an eternal question. That doesn’t mean we won’t understand gravity as it applies to our universe or quantum mechanics. Your argument is (for lack of a better or more respectful term) nonsense because of that eternal question. If we had a theory of quantum gravity then why not ask what caused quantum gravity? well, we don’t have a full understanding of gravity if we don’t know what causes quantum gravity. If the answer were thermal gravity, then you would argue that we wouldn’t have a full understanding of of gravity without knowing what causes thermal gravity…etc.

  15. David Jacobs says:

    You’ve forgotton what we were discussing, I never said we needed to understand them to use the microwave or the car. I also never implied a lot of what you say above.

    What was being discussed was simply Sean Carroll’s statement “The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.” He made this statement on four different posts, this being the most recent one, they started in 2010. I only found them the other day. They’re linked to above – he said in one of them that his motive for making the statement was partly to test the waters. Well, now he has.

    I’ve shown clearly that he’s wrong to say that, and I know that many of my colleagues would agree with me, and find this kind of distortion of the facts outrageous. Physicists often don’t bother to tell the public the truth when someone distorts the facts about physics in the media. But this instance was a particularly misleading one, and from someone in a position of responsibility.

    I’ve already mentioned various bad effects of misleading people in this way, but a general one is that it makes progress in physics slower. One of you might solve one of these mysteries one day – if you know they exist. Two things get swept under the carpet too easily – the mysteries, and the clues. The clues are often what doesn’t fit with our present picture, so they stick out and look embarrasing to those who polish science’s image. But to make progress, we should be telling everyone, and putting our heads together on these exciting things. All the best to you, I hope the discussion has been of interest.

  16. Meh says:

    you wouldn’t happen to be a rabbi, would you?

  17. Joan Hendricks says:

    To Sean Carroll;

    Thank you so much for this new book. I just got it and started reading it a few days ago and I already understand a whole lot of things that have been a mystery to me even after reading a lot of other books by well-know physicists. Your way of explaining things makes it possible for a lay person with a tremendous interest in these topics to understand the underlying concepts.