Leon Lederman explains the mystery and beauty of the Higgs boson
Confirmation of the hypothetical Higgs boson – often called the God Particle – is a coveted prize in physics. Physicists at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – announced in December 2011 that this prize might be almost in hand. They say that data from the Higgs boson could help physicists who hope one day to explain the structure of matter in our universe. But what is the Higgs boson, or God Particle? In 2009, EarthSky received this explanation from physics Nobel Laureate Dr. Leon Lederman.
What is the Higgs boson, sometimes called the God Particle?
There may not be such a thing. But the speculation has a certain amount of scientific beauty, if you like, and interest.
If the Higgs particle does exist, it could contribute to scientific understanding of why all known particles – things like atoms – exist with a mass, as physical matter.
In other words, everything we want to understand about the world requires the model of the basic particles, and the laws of physics by which these particles carry out their task. Many things about the world we do know, and the Higgs would fit smoothly into that world. That’s why the probability is that the Higgs will be found. But it’s certainly not a certainty.
Why is finding the Higgs boson so important to physicists?
Our job is to understand how the world works in its most primitive fashion. When we have a hypothesis that everything is made of atoms, and atoms are made of quarks and leptons, that’s the basic structure from which we will obtain our knowledge of the universe: its origins, how it evolved, and particularly how it will age.
A good theory of the universe will predict how the universe will evolve. It was the evolution of the universe that called into question our picture of gravity. There’s something called the theory of relativity, which is an accounting for how gravity tugs on different parts of the universe and gives rise to, for example, our solar system.
In other words, everything we want to understand about the world has to do with a model of the basic particles and the laws of physics by which these particles carry out their tasks. The Higgs idea, if it were proven correct by experiment, would simplify our picture of how the world works.
That’s our job, to make a picture of the universe that is so simple, that it could be inscribed on t-shirt of average size.
Can you tell us more about the theory, and about what’s known?
We know that all of matter – everything we have around us, chairs, trees, skies, moon, planets – all of this matter everywhere is embedded in an assumed field. Let’s call it the Higgs field. In the presence of that field, the matter we talked about can always be broken into molecules are made of atoms.
The atoms are made of nuclei and surrounded by electrons in orbital fields, which create the atom. We can say deeper in the nucleus, we have explored its structure, and its structure is made of things called quarks.
This whole picture we have is very complicated. When we try to draw a plan of how the world is composed and we start from the bottom up, we start by listing 6 different kinds of quarks. There are another set sort of particle called leptons. We’re getting the idea that everything in the world is made up of these fundamental particles.
The presence of the Higgs field helps these particles fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and explains why they have split apart, with different masses.