Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Higgs Gem

Fans of physics are undoubtedly aware of the fact that recently the folks at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva undertook tests to detect the Higgs boson. It’s called “the God particle,” named that by Leon M. Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics, because of its great importance for understanding matter—although he says, in jest, that he called it that because his publishers refused to let him call his book The Goddamned Particle instead—and that because the problem is so difficult and expensive to solve. The Higgs boson is thought to give matter its mass.

Now there is no subject more obscure than quantum physics—not because it really is but because the practitioners of this art are unwilling to discuss it in plain English. I sometimes think that they might refuse because, once spelled out, ordinary people might not be quite so impressed. But occasionally one finds some accessible explanations. I did, and I’d like to share it. Call it a Higgs pentahedron, something of a gem. Back in 1993 William Waldegrave, science minister in the United Kingdom, challenged physics to give a one-page answer to this question: “What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?” The journal Physics published five winning entries, and these are accessible here.

The answers, taken together, give a very good understanding, particularly David Miller’s—but that one is really further illuminated by reading the others. Such clarity is extremely rare—like real gems.

What I got out of it is that in physics there are fields, and one of them is the Higgs field. Now to understand “field,” think of a lake. That’s the field. But when energy in some way disturbs that lake, why then there are waves. Call each wave a “particle.” As there are no lakes without waves, there are no fields without particles, and the Higgs field has its own, the Higgs boson. It’s not really, like, a thing—just like the photon isn’t either. The photon is the wave in the lake called electromagnetism. You’re in the picture, I think. It is also quite evident that such mysterious lakes and particles arise from mathematical models built to make sense of observations—thus in the subatomic realm from photographs taken of “particle” collisions at such places as the Large Hadron Collider.

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