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Putting the Higgs particle in perspective

By Jim Baggott

On 4 July scientists at CERN in Geneva declared that they had discovered a new particle ‘consistent’ with the long-sought Higgs boson, also known as the ‘God particle’. Although further research is required to characterize the new particle fully, there can be no doubt that an important milestone in our understanding of the material world and of the evolution of the early universe has just been reached.

Exciting times! But why all the fuss? What is the Higgs boson and why does it matter so much? Was finding it really worth all the effort?

The Higgs boson is important because it implies the existence of a Higgs field, an otherwise invisible force field which pervades the entire universe. Unlike other kinds of force field (such as a gravitational field) it points, but it doesn’t push or pull. It was invented in 1964 in attempts to explain how otherwise massless particles could acquire mass.

The mechanism works like this: Without the Higgs field, elementary particles such as quarks and electrons would flit past each other at the speed of light, like ghostly will-o’-the-wisps. The elementary particles that make up you, me, and the visible universe would consequently have no mass. Without the Higgs field mass couldn’t be constructed and nothing could be.

What actually happens is that these elementary particles interact with the Higgs field and are slowed down by it, as though swimming in molasses. We interpret this ‘slowing down’ as inertia and, ever since Galileo, we have identified inertia as a property of things with mass.

Many of the predicted consequences of the Higgs field were borne out in particle collider experiments in the early 1980s. But inferring the field is not the same as detecting its tell-tale field particle. On 3 July we had hypotheses and compelling theoretical structures. The following day we began to gather hard scientific facts. Our understanding took a giant leap forward.

The publication of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ is timely, coming only six weeks after the announcement. But I had the idea for a book about the discovery of the Higgs boson in March 2010, just as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was setting a new world record for particle collision energy. This is perhaps the first example of a book that has been largely written in anticipation of a discovery.

Precisely what kind of boson has been discovered remains to be seen, and there’s hope of more surprises yet to come.

Jim Baggott is author of Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’ and a freelance science writer. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Reading but left to pursue a business career, where he first worked with Shell International Petroleum Company and then as an independent business consultant and trainer. His many books include Atomic: The First War of Physics (Icon, 2009), Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2003), A Beginner’s Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005), and A Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments (OUP, 2010).

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Recent Comments

  1. Al

    I really would appreciate it if popularizes of physics stop hyping what is otherwise a great discovery and scientific progress by using “God Particle” of other sensational phrases and layman eye-catching hyperbole. It is degrading and disrespectful of this field of study! No wonder people started to think physics has just become another religion for the masses.

  2. Bman

    Cosmology has always used words like “god particle” or “the face of god” to describe such unknown and elusive things like the Higgs. We are exploring what was previously believed to be “god”; the universe and creation. It’s only natural to explain things this way. Anyone with common sense knows it isn’t actually “god” but it’s the only word we have to explain what we’re exploring.

  3. spcgl

    As an astrophysicist I must agree with the first comment, this is a very annoying phrase, insulting both to scientists and to people of faith. However, you might be entertained to know that the background of the “God particle” phrase is that it is a public-friendly version of what physicists were REALLY calling it out of frustration because of its elusiveness — the “Godd*mn particle”. But no, physicists absolutely do not go around using the term “God” to explain what we’re exploring with experiments like CERN.

  4. Alice

    I just wanted to let our readers know that Oxford University Press is well aware of the anxiety concerning the use of the phrase ‘god particle’ and that it isn’t a phrase favored by physicists. You can find an article on the definition struggles and history of the phrase on Oxford Dictionaries Online, which was also linked to the phrase when it was used above. Because the term ‘god particle’ has been used so frequently in the media, people (as in the general public, not physicists) frequently use the phrase ‘god particle’ instead of ‘Higgs boson’ when searching for information on it. We chose to include this popular phrase to reach this audience, and rest assured that a full explanation of the inaccuracy of the phrase is included in Jim Baggott’s new book.

    — Blog Editor Alice

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