Sunday Science: The God Particle

Image: CMS https://home.cern/images/2014/01/higgs-boson-decay-four-muons

The God Particle is the rather grand nickname given to the Higgs boson, which is a teeny tiny particle, with some massive implications.

The Higgs boson is responsible for all the mass in the universe. In other words, if there’s no Higgs boson, there’s no you or me. No Marvel universe. No universe at all.

You may remember that a lot of scientists got a lot of excited when the Higgs boson was discovered on 4 July 2012.

And it’s discovery really is a big deal.

To understand why, first we need to understand a branch of science called Particle Physics, where scientists break down our complex universe into its most basic building blocks.

The Higgs Boson and the Higgs Field

These most basic building blocks are called elementary particles (those particles that can’t be broken down any further). There are two groups: fermions (that make up matter) and bosons (that carry forces).

​In simple terms, the fermions are the Lego blocks seen here that make up matter and Ironman is the boson pulling everything together:

We understand bosons and fermions relatively well, as well as the forces that result from these particles.

But we don’t really understand why matter has mass, or the amount of matter it has. And this is where we need to understand the Higgs field.

The Higgs field is an invisible and theoretical force field the fills the entire universe. We can’t see it but we can detect it with sophisticated equipment.

As a particle passes through the Higgs field it interacts with the field and gets mass.

So, where does the Higgs boson fit in?

As a particle moves through the Higgs field, it generates Higgs bosons as the field becomes “excited”.

​​So, if we can detect Higgs bosons, then we know that there is a Higgs field.

If we know there is a Higgs field, then we understand how matter gets mass.

“The way the Higgs field gives masses to particles is its own unique feature, which is different from all other known fields in the universe,” says Matt Strassler, a Harvard University theoretical physicist. “When the Higgs field turns on, it changes the environment for all particles; it changes the nature of empty space itself.”

In other words, space is no longer empty. Matter has mass. The universe exists. And the God particle suddenly seems like a very apt name for the Higgs boson.

Say whaaaat?!? Some extra information

​It’s a lot of weird and wonderful science to get your head around. This excellent video by Dave Barney and Steve Goldfarb gives a more detailed explanation:

And here’s a more in-depth explanation from Dr. Peter Higgs, who first described the elusive particle in 1964. He sat down with the BBC’s Life Scientific radio program to offer his description of the Higgs boson. Here it is:

What is Sunday Science?

Hello. I’m the freelance writer who gets tech. I have two degrees in Physics and, during my studies, I became increasingly frustrated with the complicated language used to describe some outstanding scientific principles. Language should aid our understanding — in science, it often feels like a barrier.

So, I want to simplify these science sayings and this blog series “Sunday Science” gives a quick, no-nonsense definition of the complex-sounding scientific terms you often hear, but may not completely understand.

If there’s a scientific term or topic you’d like me to tackle in my next post, fire an email to gemma@geditorial.com or leave a comment below. Thanks!

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