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Making sense of science: Higgs Boson explained

July 18, 2012 – On July 4th, in an obvious European/Democrat conspiracy to trump 4th of July Celebrations in America, scientists with funny accents announced that a subatomic particle resembling the long-sought Higgs Boson has been detected at the world’s most complicated and powerful machine, the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland.

I’m obviously kidding about the Euro/Democrat conspiracy, but the sad part is that some folks understand so little about this stuff and have such a warped view of the world, that the first sentence actually makes sense to them.  In this week’s column I’ll try to make sense out this for you gentle and intelligent readers.

What the heck does all this “science” mean to the average person in Rockwall, Texas?

This means that scientists may have found evidence of  (we can see this – it’s not something written in a religious manual) the missing link in the Standard Model of physics that helps explain how/why every single thing in the Universe, including people, have mass. You see, there are four basic forces in the Universe but we don’t yet know how they are unified in one Grand Theory of Everything. The forces are: Strong nuclear (like Sun’s Fusion), weak nuclear (like an atomic bomb), Electromagnetism (electricity, light, and all the stuff in the spectrum), and finally, the weakest fundamental force is Gravity. The problem is that these forces break down at extremely small scales.

How small is small?  These four forces break down at the Planck scales of 10^-32 meters where things are that small. This is the domain of the quanta where quantum physical laws take over for Newtonian physical laws. The detection of a Higgs Boson makes it comprehensible that a Grand Unified Theory of Everything may be on the horizon.  This kind of knowledge makes things like understanding how we got here (the Universe), traveling at seemingly impossible speeds and going places that are fresh from science fiction tales.

Large hedron collider cern, switzerland

The 27 Km long acceleration tube inside the underground tunnel requires tremendous maintenance. The people who operate and maintain the LHC drive around the underground tunnel in many types of powered vehicles like the cart shown here. (Image courtesy of CERN )

Imagine that this tunnel was built to contain two incredibly high energy beams of protons, about as close to pure energy as humans can produce. The Standard Model says that any mechanism capable of generating the masses of elementary particles become visible at energies above 1.4 terra-electron volts (TeV). The LHC was designed and built to collide two 7 to 8 TeV proton beams in order to be able to answer the question of whether the Higgs boson actually exists. This seems like about a 6x overdesign to me, but I’m not a crazy-smart particle physics genius.

The details of what happened were made public on July 4th  2012, when the two main experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (ATLAS and CMS) both reported independently that they found a new particle with a mass of about 125 GeV/c2 (about 133 proton masses, on the order of 10−25 kg), which is “consistent with the Higgs boson”. They acknowledged that further work would be needed to conclude that it is indeed the Higgs boson, that it has the theoretically predicted properties of the Higgs boson, and exactly which version of the Standard Model it best supported if confirmed[ii].

According to Alasdair Wilkin’s reporting in the E-zine i09, the LHC director, Dr. Rolf Heuer gave the best explanation , “We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.” Certainly, the two sets of independent experiments have a tentatively confirmed discovery of a new subatomic particle, and it’s in the correct mass range and is the right type of particle to be the Higgs. That’s a huge deal in and of itself — this is the first new elementary particle discovered since the top quark in 1995. But we can’t say just yet that what CERN has discovered is definitely the Higgs boson, let alone the one predicted by the Standard Model.

The average person may have simple questions about this stuff so here goes my attempt to make it all understandable.

  • What is CERN? CERN is the European Center for Nuclear Research
  • What is a Large Hadron Collider or any “collider” for that matter?  Imagine a racetrack in a tube that accelerates invisible particles with a huge bunch of magnets that use incredible amounts of electricity.  The LHC accelerates subatomic particles to almost the speed of light and smashes them into each other as they travel in opposite directions.  It is at this impact that the ATLAS and CMS detectors do their thing and capture what is happening.
  • What does CMS (one of the experiments that detected the particle) stand for? CMS stands for Compact Muon Solenoid which is a detector that identifies subatomic Muon particle behaviors
  • What is the “Standard Model” anyway? The Standard Model is the most widely accepted theory that everything in the Universe is made from twelve basic building blocks called fundamental particles, governed by four fundamental forces. Our best understanding of how these twelve particles and three of the forces I stated above  are related to each other is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particles and forces. Developed in the early 1970s, it has successfully explained a host of experimental results and precisely predicted a wide variety of phenomena. Over time and through many experiments by many physicists, the Standard Model has become established as a well-tested physics theory[iii].
Higgs Boson Large Hedron Collider Switzerland

Artist’s conception of the Proton-proton collision in the CMS experiment producing four high-energy muons (red lines). The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of a Higgs boson but it is also consistent with background Standard Model (Image courtesy of CERN)

If you have gotten this far, you must be interested in the biggest question: What is the Higgs Boson?

Higgs, the Higgs Boson is predicted to validate that the Higgs mechanism, the thing that enables elementary particles to have mass, is correct. Since everything has to have mass, down to the smallest particles if we all have mass, then the masses found at the absolute smallest unit are essential to the structure we see in the world.  Consider that if electrons didn’t have mass, atoms wouldn’t form. Without mass at the tiniest level, then neither would galaxies, planets, or life have mass. There’s a lot more to all this structure than the Higgs mechanism alone, but you should get the idea why this is a hugely important finding.

So like most major science work that blasts through former barriers to create new reality, this one will forever change how we view the world.  Some day we will look back on this time and wonder why we had to work so hard to figure it all out before we got to the Grand Unifying Force.

[i] CERN image accessed 8 July, 2012 http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/905939

[ii] http://io9.com/5923494/what-todays-higgs-boson-discovery-really-means accessed on 8 July, 2012

[iii] http://user.web.cern.ch/public/en/Science/StandardModel-en.html accessed 8 July, 2012.

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, who has lived in Rockwall with his family since 2000.

Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.


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