The godd*mn particle

Prof. Sean Carroll will be live blogging the “Higgses announcement,” expected early July 4th, US time.  But the news is likely to be … a little more certainty that the elusive mass lending weirdo particle exists and lives at 125 GeV. Whether the findings will go beyond that is unclear. But it’s still a BFD, because the Higgs Boson is almost as elusive as God (As Embertime notes in comments, it’s probably down the back of the soda) and it’s the most important goddamn particle in physics. What is the Higgs you ask? In layman’s terms:

David Miller— Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-Prime- Minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. […]

Now consider a rumour passing through our room full of uniformly spread political workers. Those near the door hear of it first and cluster together to get the details, then they turn and move closer to their next neighbours who want to know about it too. A wave of clustering passes through the room. It may spread out to all the corners, or it may form a compact bunch which carries the news along a line of workers from the door to some dignitary at the other side of the room. Since the information is carried by clusters of people, and since it was clustering which gave extra mass to the ex-Prime Minister, then the rumour-carrying clusters also have mass. The Higgs boson is predicted to be just such a clustering in the Higgs field.

The Higgs Boson gives us mass. Without it nothing would have weight, in fact weight wouldn’t even be a concept. Weight is a consequence of mass and its wicked stepsister gravity. Both are a big issue for physics in the sense that quantum mechanics does a lousy job of explaining them, but does a wonderful job of explaining everything else.

If you want to understand how really small things with little or no mass interact, such as electrons flowing through the molecules of a conductor, or photons of light at a certain frequency (Color) hitting atoms, quantum mechanics is your friend. If the idea is to model the behavior of big things with lots of mass interacting, like planets orbiting a star or galaxies full of dark matter colliding, you’ll need to master the mathematics of gravity, meaning Newton’s ideas for an accurate approximation or General Relativity to get it to as many decimal points as needed. But if you want to understand really, really tiny things with lots and lots of mass interacting with one another, you’re shit out of luck. These two incredibly useful theories, that predict behavior so well in their respective domains, fail almost completely.

Fortunately, in everyday life, there aren’t a lot of really tiny things with huge mass. So the status quo binary theory approach works great. But one place where it does matter, no pun intended, is in the first few moments of the Big Bang. The early universe was really small, as small as it gets, yet nothing could be more massive. The entire mass of the everything that was and ever would be was squeezed into a space as small as you want to imagine, and then smaller still.

 To even begin to address the most fundamental questions, how the universe began, why it evolved the way it did, if there could be other universes or have been other universes, or how new universes might arise whatever that means, we need a physics that unifies General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. It’s not that physicists want to marry two theories that don’t get along, it’s that the nature of reality forces them to try to arrange it!

A very tiny thing, like a fundamental particle, that causes really big things, like the earth, to have mass is that unification incarnate. There is nothing better to study for insight into the big mystery. So finding out whether or not that tiny little critter exists and what it’s like is critical, if we ever want a snowball’s chance in hell of answering the biggest questions conceivable. So far it’s been elusive as hell, it’s not so much the God particle as the goddamn-where-is-it particle.

Well, we may know a lot more about where the goddamn particle is lurking, come Wednesday.


  1. embertine says

    You know it will have turned out to be down the back of the sofa the whole time.

    Can’t wait for this! NEARLY FOUND IT!!!

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