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. jpd says:

    entropy: whats the weather going to be tomorow ?

  2. Tony says:

    My wife is just a collection of protons, neutrons, atoms and various other parts and processes, yet understanding these does not mean you can understand the whole. I wonder if the universe is a great deal like this? The parts equal more than than the whole.

  3. Patrick says:

    I think when he says that we understand the physics of everyday life hr means it in a fashion of we understand the fundamentals of everything and you people complaining just take things to far. I understand your physicists and brainiacs i am one myself but the one thing i never lost durring mmy education was the ability to think and understand like a layman. I think if you turn that part of your brain on you will understand

  4. Richard M says:

    David Jacobs: “It is one thing to know a law of physics, and another thing to understand it.”

    No, that’s not right. Laws of physics are descriptive of patterns in nature. If you know the law, you understand the description. If you think understanding a law entails something more, you are mistaken.

  5. David Jacobs says:

    You’re entirely wrong. The interpretative side of physics is crucial, and many of the greatest 20th century physicists saw it as what we need to find. John Wheeler frequently said that we will one day find an underlying conceptual picture, and Einstein said there was a need for one. Ehrenfest argued that the conceptual side was the most important part of physics, and said complicated mathematics without conceptual understanding was a distraction.

    The only reason you don’t know these things is that you live in era where, having failed to solve the conceptual puzzles that confronted us in the 20th century, we have become immersed in the mathematics, and some dishonest people like to claim that what we have is the whole thing. In fact the reason for that claim is not only what I’ve mentioned above, but also to push back against a feeling of NOT understanding how physics works, because in many areas we don’t. So it’s partly what might be called compensatory behaviour.

    If we tried to construct the everyday world out of what we understand in physics, it would not look very like what we see around us. For one thing, it wouldn’t have the apparent motion through time that we all go through each day. Someone mentioned their ‘daily routine’ above, well to really get on top of your daily routine, you’d need motion through time. But as it is not understood in physics in any way, it couldn’t be provided. Physicists disagree widely on whether it exists at all, and we have what seems to be a rigorous proof coming out of special relativity that it must be some kind of illusion. And yet Sean Carroll has argued that it exists somehow, without really saying how. There’s a need to explain the local time rates of special relativity. This ignorance of what goes on underneath the everyday world, which we physicists all feel, is what he is partly trying to push back against. I hope this makes sense. I would not make these points if the public were not being misled – I’m not saying this for him, but for them.

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  7. David Jacobs says:

    Yes, thanks for reminding me. The possible discovery of the standard Higgs boson, or something similar, doesn’t explain mass. To do that you’d have to explain the mass-energy equivalence, which we still don’t understand, but which is clearly central to the universe. The Higgs field might account for around 2% of the mass in the universe, and in everyday life. It only affects questions about the masses of elementary particles, it can’t explain the mass that is in the energy that binds more complex particles together. Sean Carroll quite rightly makes the point above.

    This makes it even more ironic that he trumpets our ‘understanding’ of the physics underneath everyday life in connection with the new boson measurements. The idea that it adds to our understanding by explaining mass is sometimes thrown at the public, but it doesn’t tell us anything that gives us a real understanding of mass.

    But we’ll end up with a real understanding of mass, and of all (or most) of these things. If you look at the history of physics, you’ll find we didn’t just get the laws, we got the conceptual side as well, and we developed an understanding of physics – that’s a very important part of it. But it sometimes develops behind the experimental side, or the mathematical side.

  8. chris says:

    @16, vmarko

    i think it’s actually even more interesting. first of all, big bang nucleosynthesis depends in a very essential way on the stability of deuterons. i don’t think it is really known whether the deuteron would be stable with massless quarks. and then, secondly, in a purely neutron universe there would be no ordinary atomic pressure to stabilize stellar collapse. so unless i am mistaken, a contracting neutron cloud would essentially just collapse into a neutron star.

    a few splashes of “usual” nuclei would probably exist, but i’m not sure at all if they would exist in any non-negligible abundance.

  9. Ray Gunn says:

    Sean – Thank you for #8. 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.

  10. Peter says:

    Read the article. Not sure though whether that caused my head ache, or if it was a higgs boson hitting me in between the eyes…

  11. Brett says:

    #30

    I realize there is no point in trying to comment back and forth because you are hell bent on defending your belief with no possibility of seeing things differently (which is a big indicator that you’re wrong), but we do understand the physics of everyday life. You seemingly don’t understand the limits of the various branches of physics.

    You would not describe the structural integrity of a building using quantum mechanics or general relativity because those two things wouldn’t describe squat about the building. You wouldn’t use particle cosmology to describe the building either because you would be applying mathematics and physical laws that do not accurately describe the building. You could make the tedious connection between those branches of physics, but you would be a moron for trying to describe classical physics in quantum or cosmological terminology because it would take up way too much time to describe something that’s already completely described by classical physics.

    All of the things you say ‘aren’t understood by Physics’ ARE understood by Physicists, so much so that it is assumed that a person reading this would already know them; and I’ll grant you this, Sean Carroll may be too smart to realize just how uneducated the general populace actually is, or maybe he just doesn’t feel like dumbing it down because he doesn’t have too and his fans don’t want him to, maybe he saves full explanations for his books…available on amazon.com. What YOU don’t understand is that 1 physicist is not as good as any other physicist. Just as there are good and bad doctors, musicians, construction workers, etc. etc. etc.; there are good and bad physicists, scientists who actually understand things and scientists who just happen to have a degree in physics but don’t have a good understanding of it. There is a point in all knowledge where things suddenly and massively click for some people and they understand how everything fits together in a field of knowledge. Most people never reach that point, yet they still go on to obtain a degree and hold an important position in society. I know plenty of physicists who don’t know squat about physics because they are more in love with the idea of being a physicist than the concepts of physics. But I guess the one final point I could make is this: the bigger a problem is, the longer it takes to interpret exactly what is going on. With that in mind, I do not know of anything in Physics that physicists are having trouble interpreting other than Dark Matter. If you could name an area of “everyday life” in which we don’t know the physics, I’ll bet I can give you the knowledge that you have overlooked with plenty of references. There is no question that we understand the physics of everyday life, the only question is whether or not your ego will allow you to accept that YOU DON”T understand it.

  12. jpd says:

    “I do not know of anything in Physics that physicists are having trouble interpreting other than Dark Matter”

    i think you don’t know physics

  13. David Jacobs says:

    You’re amazingly wrong, and I can show it easily. First though, your point about not applying QM to describe the structural integrity of a building. I can see what you’re talking about, but it doesn’t apply to what was being discussed. I was taking issue with a particular quote of Sean Carroll’s, which when he first said it in 2010, no-one of any weight in the field seems to have noticed, or bothered to take issue. But many like me would disagree strongly.

    I won’t go far with you, because I was taking issue with a real physicist, who like all real physicists, knows perfectly well how little we understand. If you were one, you’d know too. I could show you places where good physicists discuss these things, but you would be hard to convince, and I’m not prepared to try. Read Lee Smolin’s “The trouble with physics”.

    You say “I do not know of anything in Physics that physicists are having trouble interpreting other than Dark Matter.” Well, that certainly shows how little you know. You say:

    “If you could name an area of “everyday life” in which we don’t know the physics, I’ll bet I can give you the knowledge that you have overlooked with plenty of references.”

    Well I could give you six or seven such areas, but here’s one I’ve already set out for you – the motion through time in everyday life. We are so totally stumped in trying to intepret what we know about the observed apparent motion through time, that Lee Smolin said his famous words in that book:

    “I believe there is something basic we are all missing, some wrong assumption we are all making. If this is so, then we need to isolate the wrong assumption and replace it with a new idea….I strongly suspect that the key is time. More and more, I have the feeling that quantum theory and general relativity are both deeply wrong about the nature of time. It is not enough to combine them. There is a deeper problem, perhaps going back to the origin of physics […] Motion is frozen, and the whole history of constant motion and change is presented to us as something static and unchanging. If I had to guess (and guessing is what I do for a living), this is the scene of the crime….We have to find a way to unfreeze time.”

    As you can see, we have ‘trouble’ interpreting motion through time. So you can’t get “the knowledge that I have overlooked with plenty of references”. You’ve quite simply been misled, by reading spin on the internet.

    Those physicists who believe that motion through time exists – and it changes its rate in different places in the universe – have to explain why the proof we’ve had for 45 years that it’s an illusion is wrong. No-one can, but an increasing number of us are starting to believe it exists, including Sean, who when he talks to other physicists in his papers, admits what we don’t know – see this paper, entitled “What if time really exists?”.

    http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/318

    As I said, that’s as far as I’ll go with a non-physicist. But if Sean or any physicist wants to talk I’ll talk – but I doubt if anyone who knows the field will try to defend the ridiculous idea that the physics underneath everyday life is understood. All he was talking about was the excellent fact that we now have most of the laws in some areas – that’s a good achievement. But that’s not what he said. Good day, and good wishes to all.

  14. Brett says:

    jpd and david jacobs, you’re both incredibly wrong and know nothing.

    Every problem you have in your absence on knowledge can be summed up in what I just commented – “Just as there are good and bad doctors, musicians, construction workers, etc. etc. etc.; there are good and bad physicists, scientists who actually understand things and scientists who just happen to have a degree in physics but don’t have a good understanding of it.”

    If you stick to searching the internet for your information, then you will not find the scientists who completely understand physics. Not that the internet is a bad place to start a thought, but it’s the worst place to finish one. And David, no physicist is going to go out of their way to talk to a hobbyist like yourself if you keep bashing things that are too complex for you to understand simply because you can’t understand them. That’s the point that you beautifully proved, that you are far too arrogant to be able to learn.

  15. vmarko says:

    @36. Brett:

    Brett, from your comments I can conclude that you are not a physicist yourself. Therefore, I’ll kindly ask you to refrain from putting your words into physicists’ mouths.

    The fact is that Sean can write a claim like point 10 on his blog, and then outmanouver all (amateur) readers’ criticisms by redefining the meaning of “everyday physics”, using small print and “read more carefully”-type of arguments. However, his claims would have much more trouble holding water under serious peer review. In fact, I guess very few physicists would completely agree with Sean on this issue.

    How come, you might ask? Well, firstly, history teaches us that whenever someone makes a universal claim of that type, he is typically proven wrong afterwards (there are many examples of this). So physicists are becoming more and more cautious about such grandiose claims. And secondly, there are holes in his arguments. I’ll give a few hints about those in my next comment.

    HTH, 🙂
    Marko

  16. Brett says:

    That’s what we are arguing about here Marko, that he is not saying the universe is completely understood; it’s in his comment that there are things we don’t understand. You are simply incorrect and pretending to be an authority on the subject when you are anything but 😀 It’s pointless to argue with someone who is so ignorant that they don’t realize this is a philosophical argument.

    And it’s the internet buddy. If you’re on here as much as we are, then you’re probably not at the top of your game. I believe you fit into the discussion as one of those physicists who has a degree but doesn’t necessarily understand the big picture.

  17. Richard M says:

    David, you keep appealing to authority (Einstein, Wheeler, Smolin) but you give facts about physicists’ philosophical views, which are not the same as facts about physics or even facts about the state of the science of physics. Motion is a change measured in a spacetime continuum; you can’t have it with only one (temporal) dimension. I cannot imagine what problem in physics you are trying to convey with the phrase “motion through time”.

  18. David Jacobs says:

    In everyday life, we observe, or seem to observe, a sequence of events. It’s as if there is some sort of motion along the time axis. This motion behaves in the geometry like motion at the speed of light along the time axis. This is unexplained. That’s what I was taking about, the observed apparent motion through time.

    Many physicists are now working on the problem of time, because most people think we need to solve it in order to get to quantum gravity. Some are trying to relate this sequence of events to causality, because that’s one of the few things that might be related to an order of events. The consistent direction of time is often related to entropy, because that’s one of the few things that only goes one way, and isn’t reversible. But no-one knows how this apparent motion arises, or appears to, and standard theory seems to prohibit its existence.

    That’s why it’s such a misleading statement to tell the public that the physics underneath everyday life is understood. Because in everyday life we move through time, but in the picture relativists believe in – that is, the standard view – we don’t. Many of us disagree with that standard view nowadays, including Sean. He mentions the problem in that paper I linked to, which you should read:

    “But partly, it arises from the difficulty we have in understanding time at a fundamental level.”

    Physicists all know about that difficulty we have, but it seems that some of you guys don’t. That’s because the public face of science tends to underemphasise the problems.

  19. lots of very smart people here.
    a little like the catholic philosophers busy at the question;

    “how many angels can dance on a pinhead ?”

    we are asking for the sheet music.

  20. Richard M says:

    David,

    dt/dt = 1. That solves your “motion through time” problem. Next?

  21. jpd says:

    actually its the limit as dt -> 0
    so you have 0/0. is that = 1 ? maybe.
    depends on how you take the limit.

  22. vmarko says:

    Sean:

    “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.”

    I disagree. Let me give you a few examples of kitchen-table experiments from everyday life, that may not be in accord with the Standard Model. What is considered “everyday life” in this context is essentially a matter of taste, but nevertheless…

    As a first example, consider the problem of the influx of Solar neutrinos (the famous “factor of 2 problem”). Experiment is easy (conceptually) — pick your favorite neutrino detector, and use it to measure the flux of neutrinos coming from the Sun. Theory is not that easy, but can be worked out, essentially coming out of the Standard Model — calculate the predicted value for the neutrino flux, given a Sun-like star. Compare and contrast — the experimental value is in direct contradiction with the Standard Model prediction. Of course, this contradiction is by now resolved, by doing more experiments, and (crucially) by substantially changing the neutrino sector of the Standard Model, in order to match the new experiments. All this happened fairly recently, btw.

    There are now two Standard Models — the old one, which does not match all experiments from everyday life, and the new one, which does, but is a highly nontrivial revision of the old one. Several years ago, before neutrino oscillations were experimentally confirmed and the SM readjusted, I could have pointed you to a “finger-in-the-eye” contradiction between SM and an everyday common thing — the Sun.

    The second example is a bit hypothetical, but legal nevertheless. Experiment is literally of “kitchen table” type — put one mole (i.e. 10^{23} atoms) of water in a box, and measure its mass (using the scales, against some predetermined standard body called “1 kg mass”). Calculate the total number of protons and neutrons in the box, and divide, to experimentally obtain a value for the proton mass. Feel free to approximate that neutrons and protons have roughly the same mass.

    Now go for the theory — start from the Standard Model, and do an ab initio QCD calculation of the proton mass. Hmm… Oh wait, noone knows how to calculate that! The best effort so far (to my knowledge) is http://arxiv.org/abs/0906.3599, but that only computes hadron mass ratios rather than the masses themselves. The value of the proton mass is so far an unsolved problem in QCD.

    And now comes the kick — just for the sake of the argument, assume that in (say) ten years from now, some genius figures out some fantastic method and calculates the proton mass nonperturbatively. And again for the sake of my argument, assume that he finds that the theoretical value for the proton mass is only 20% of the experimentally measured mass. What will happen then? Well, a large portion of the Standard Model will have to go down the drain, and SM theorists will have a lot of work on their hands.

    So there you are — I am giving you a kitchen-table experiment (weigh a bottle of water, and do some math on it), and this experiment is — potentially — in straight contradiction with the Standard Model.

    Of course, I don’t believe this will happen — rather, I believe that SM will give a correct value for the proton mass, once we manage to calculate it. But this is just a belief, and can very well turn out to be false!

    Bottomline — because of the above two examples (and others like them), I do not dare to claim that physics of “everyday life” is a solved problem. There are still open problems on “everyday” scales. Our belief that the known theory will give a correct account for those problems (once they become computationally tractable) is just like the belief of early 20th century physicists that the blackbody radiation and the Michaelson experiment are just two complicated problems that the classical Newtonian mechanics will handle naturally, once someone formulates the appropriate calculation. I don’t want to take the risk of being wrong in that kind of way. If Sean does, it’s his choice, but I doubt that many other physicists would support him on that.

    HTH, 🙂
    Marko

    Sean, I would really appreciate if you could devote a few moments to comment on this, I’d be very interested to know what you think.

  23. Richard M says:

    jpd, maybe you should retake calculus. dt/dt is already a limit of (delta t)/(delta t) as delta t approaches 0. You don’t need to take the limit of the limit.

  24. vmarko says:

    @41. Brett:

    You are free to question my expertise as much as you want, it’s your own opinion.

    However, the fact that I am frequently reading Sean’s blog and sometimes post comments means only that I find the topics of the blog interesting enough. It has nothing to do with my professional life, or being “not at the top of my game” or “internet buddy”, or whatever.

    Btw, you could say that Sean himself is not at the top of his game, by the same argument, right? Please, let’s stick to the topic…

    HTH, 🙂
    Marko

  25. jpd says:

    maybe i should.
    l’Hopital’s rule requires the functions to be continuously differentiable.
    maybe time isn’t.
    now i see you are editing your clever comment to avoid l’Hopitals rule.
    i should get a hobby.