Goddamn Particle Physics


You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the so-called God particle and the discovery of the Higgs boson. So what’s all the fuss about? This video from NASA provides a great overview.

Particle physics is a fascinating discipline because the scales are so small as to be incomprehensible.

I once had particle accelerators described to me as conducting physics with cannonballs. As with any analogy, it’s a comparison and not entirely accurate, but it does help conceptualize what’s going on at a sub-atomic level.

Imagine if you wanted to discover whether a house (the universe) had a television somewhere inside, but you can’t go inside to find out.

To complicate things further, imagine your only tool is a pirate’s cannon. Laugh if you will, but this is essentially how the Large Haldron Collider works.

Now, we know how many windows there are in the average house, so if we pummel our house with enough cannonballs and carefully count all the fragments of broken glass that fly out we might just figure out that there’s more glass flying around than we expected and, eureka, we’ve found proof for the existence of the television! Or perhaps bathroom mirrors!

Sounds silly, I know, but that’s essentially how CERN discovered the Higgs boson. The scientists at CERN didn’t actually see the Higgs, they saw an excess of particles that decayed from the Higgs.

By the way, the real interest is around the Higgs field, not the Higgs boson, which is a particle. Thanks to the quirky way in which matter and energy are interchangeable (ala e=mc2), we can determine if the Higgs field exists by finding its doppleganger, the Higgs boson as a particle.

The law of the conservation of energy is a wonderfully weird subject of itself. Consider a simple math equation, 4 + 4 = 8. Nothing hard about that. 4 quarks (in the form of 2 protons) with a total of 4 whatevers of energy = 8. Where it gets interesting is when our two protons collide with all that energy as you can end up with any combination of matter and energy that adds up to 8, perhaps 6 quarks and 2 whatevers of energy, etc. So long as our total doesn’t exceed 8, mass/energy has been preserved.

Brian Wells explains the counter-intuitive results of sub-atomic collisions with a demolition derby analogy.

Is there a Higgs boson hiding inside the proton somewhere?

Well, no. But a very interesting thing about colliding particles in this manner is that it doesn’t work the way we see collisions work in the macro world. It’s as if we were to collide two 18-wheeler trucks, and instead of fragments of steel and glass — instead of pieces of truck — we see bicycles, station wagons, skate boards, and wheelchairs making up the wreckage.

And it gets even better because the wreckage produced isn’t determined by the particles we collide. We can have within the wreckage any particle that is the mass-equivalent of the energy of the collision. So it is entirely possible that we can collide two tricycles with enough speed that the energy of the collision will produce an 18-wheeler. So with sufficient energy, we can produce any particle in nature just by colliding two protons together.

Brian Wells, Android Astronomer

So what is the Higgs field?

The Higgs field is thought to be that quality of nature that gives some particles mass. Think of the Higgs feild like a swimming pool. If you jump in and try to run/wade from one side to the other it’s pretty hard going (you have mass). Some things, though, like a Styrofoam boogy-board (or photons of light, etc) will sail across the surface of the pool with little or no resistance at all. So different particles interact differently with the Higgs field giving them a property we recognize as mass.

Why is the Higgs boson called the God particle? Nobel laureate Leon Lederman is responsible for this little bit of scientific hyperbole, or rather his editor is. Lederman felt the Higgs boson was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive,” that he had to give it a nickname, but the name he had in mind wasn’t the God particle.

Contrary to all the media hype, rather than being the God particle because there’s some divine, mystical quality to the Higgs, Lederman actually wanted to name this boson the “goddamn particle” because it was so bloody hard to find. His editor realized God was a much better sales pitch to the public, and he was right.

One wonders if there would have been quite so much media coverage for the goddamn particle. Certainly the W-boson and the Z-boson didn’t attract anything like the attention of the Higgs.

Personally, I think the goddamn particle has moxy :)

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6 thoughts on “Goddamn Particle Physics

  1. I love physics, took 2 years of it in college “just because” as an elective. I like to consider myself somewhat competent in the subject, and the actual implications of how big this is is something I can not fully grasp. I hope someday they can explain this in a way that people can really understand that this is more than just an unidentified molecule.

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