The Higgs has (probably) been discovered - but what exactly is it? Particle Shmarticle's Tim Cashmere explains
First published on 11 Jul 2012.
Physicists working on the largest scientific experiment ever designed have announced one of the greatest discoveries in modern science; confirmation of a particle known as the Higgs boson.
The announcement was made via video-link from the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland to conference attendees of the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Melbourne, Australia by spokespeople from both the CMS and ATLAS detectors (two competing teams each searching for the same result). It was the first time each team had heard the other’s results.
Discovery of this particle represents almost three decades of international collaboration. ATLAS spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti jokingly thanked nature for being detectable and said that the Large Hadron Collider is working “beyond the design”.
Peter Higgs – one of the architects of the theory and the particle's namesake – was present at the announcement, who after wiping a sneaky tear from his eye told the scientists that were responsible for the experiments: “I would like to add my congratulations to everybody involved in this tremendous achievement. Really, it is an incredible thing that has happened in my lifetime.”
Higgs first published the idea of the particle in 1964.
So what is “The Higgs” and what does it do?
The particle is the (no longer) missing piece of the puzzle in the standard model of particle physics, explaining why matter has mass and therefore interacts via gravity.
It is not uncommon to hear people talk about the particle itself, however it might be easier to imagine the “Higgs field” to get an idea of what it actually does.
In what's known as Quantum Field Theory, particles are considered to be small chunks of a field. The Higgs field is what gives particles mass. The more massive (or weighty, for the purposes of this discussion) a particle is, the stronger the interaction between the particle and the field itself. You can imagine a particle as being the smallest possibly chunk of a field in the same way a water molecule is the smallest possible chunk of the water in your bathtub.
According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the ultimate speed limit in the universe is the speed of light. That’s quick. It’s really quick. In fact, it’s around 300,000 kilometres per second – or around seven and a half times around the equator every second. It’s also the speed at which particles with no mass will travel. These particles have no interaction with the Higgs field and are free to roam the universe at the maximum speed possible.
A particle that interacts with the field will be slowed down in a way somewhat analogous to how you would slow down when you run along the beach and hit the water. Effectively, a more massive particle is more difficult to move.
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