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The Higgs Boson for Dummies Like Me

Updated on February 12, 2016

What the heck is this nerd stuff?

You might be reading this right now, thinking: oh man, could this possibly be any more nerdy? There is absolutely no way I'm going to be inspired to think about this particle that was created by smashing other particles together. And what's the significance, anyway? I'm going to very quickly do my best to convince you otherwise, and I'm also going to think about the Higgs boson and the associated Higgs field tonight as I'm falling asleep.

Having been successful in the latter venture already, I'm now confident that I can at least explain the Higgs field, Higgs boson, and the Higgs effect to you in layman's terms. Perhaps there is a need for validation among physicists who try to do this, a sort of hubris that keeps people from using everyday concepts, or maybe it's easier for me to do this because I'm a regular guy who has just made a study of physics for a while now, but either way, I'm confident that you'll not only understand this stuff, but you'll actually enjoy it too! Sit back, relax, and enjoy the admittedly nerdy ride.

The author

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The Higgs field, and the speed of light

Perhaps it's best if we begin with what, exactly, the Higgs field is, and why we should care what it is. If you can imagine with me a miniature thought experiment: imagine every single particle in the universe just absolutely flying around through space at the speed of light, completely and utterly uninhibited. Protons, neutrons, electrons- everything- would be going at the maximum speed limit, C, or 186,000 miles per second. Everything that would normally make up you and me would be ripping through space at the cosmic speed limit. Imagine this, and you'll have a picture of what the universe would be like without the Higgs field.

When you think about things from a different point of view, it actually makes a lot of sense that everything should go at C: either something is in motion, or it isn't. Explaining where variable speeds come from is actually a great deal simpler than explaining how everything either moves or it doesn't, so if everything moved at the speed of light, we'd have a nice, tidy universe.

But everything doesn't fly around at C. In fact, it simply isn't possible for massive particles (particles that have mass) to go as fast as light (C), ever, no matter what they do. Got a particle going at 99.9999991% the speed of light, just like at the LHC? Want to add that extra 0.000009%? It can't be done. Not possible. C is the "cosmic speed limit", as it is frequently called.

Massless particles, on the other hand, have no issue whatsoever going C. In fact, that's the only speed they can go (although if you pass light through glass or water, it goes slower than it does through a vacuum, the photons themselves are actually still going C, they're just being deflected from the atoms that make up the substance through which the light is passing).

Mmmmmm

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Another mini-thought experiment (the syrup analogy)

So why aren't all particles (including those with mass) flying around at the speed of light? It turns out that there is a field that permeates all of spacetime. To understand what this field is like, let's do another mini-thought experiment. Imagine that you have a swimming pool filled completely with pancake syrup. Mmmm, pancake syrup. Anyway, you also have the Empire State building in your back yard (your back yard is really, really big), and you go all the way up to the observation deck of the Empire State building. From the deck, you toss a marble out the window, letting gravity do its work.

Now imagine the marble picking up speed until it reaches its terminal velocity, maybe 20 floors down or so (the terminal velocity is when air drag and gravity find their happy medium or call a truce, depending on how you want to look at it). Although the marble won't go any faster on the way down, it's nevertheless going really fast, maybe as much as 200 miles per hour or thereabouts. Really fast! What happens (besides a tasty splash) when it hits the deep end of the pancake syrup pool? Of course the marble slows down tremendously. It gradually sludges the way to the bottom of the pool, taking 10 or 100 times as long to reach the bottom of the pool, even though the distance from the top of the Empire State building to the top of the pool is more than a thousand feet, and the distance to the bottom of the pool is less than ten feet.

The Higgs field is a great deal like this.

Great explanation of the Higgs field

Yet another (the cocktail party)

If that doesn't do it for you, consider instead this beautiful explanation from David Miller of University College London, who likened the Higgs field to a busy cocktail party, where (let's say) physicists are hanging out with one another, but they're roughly equally spaced out.

Someone of no consequence could walk right through the party (to the bar, in the excellent accompanying Ted-Ed video) without any inhibition whatsoever, at maximum speed. However, if a famous physicist were to walk through the party, he (or she) would be absolutely mobbed every step of the way, taking many times longer to get through the party to the other side.

The reason why the cocktail party analogy is so much better from a technical point of view is because massless particles will just go through uninhibited, but it's hard to imagine anything going through a swimming pool full of pancake syrup at the same speed it would fall through air!

In the cocktail party analogy, the person who simply walks through, uninhibited, is the massless particle, and the person who interacts with every clump of people along the way is the massive particle. The more the person interacts, the more mass they have. Continuing with this concept, if a rumor was to spread through this crowd from end to end, spreading in regular clumps along the way, the "clumps" would be very much representative of the Higgs boson.

Peter Higgs

Did you know what the Higgs boson was?

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What is mass?

It's important to take a moment here to note that mass isn't being generated by the Higgs field, but rather it is imparted to the particles moving through the field. The field itself contains the mass in the first place in the form of energy. Remember: mass is energy, and vice versa.

It's also prudent at this point to consider what mass really means. Essentially, mass is resistance to movement. If you try to push a bowling ball, it requires more energy to move it than if you push a volleyball, even though both are roughly the same volume, because the bowling ball has more mass than the volleyball.

This process- giving mass to a particle - is called, appropriately enough, the Higgs Effect.

The Large Hadron Collider

Finding the Higgs boson

"Finding the Higgs Boson" could well be a title of a 90s romance comedy, but it actually represented one of the most important discoveries of physics from the last few decades, and ultimately won Peter Higgs and Fran├žois Englert the Nobel Prize in 2013. In 2012, particles had been smashed together with incredible energy and, ultimately, created a Higgs boson. This not only confirmed that the Higgs field did, indeed, exist, but the discovery also validated the standard model of particle physics, which required the Higgs in order to explain how mass worked.

The Higgs boson, to scientists

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    • stereomike83 profile image

      stereomike83 2 years ago from UK

      As I said on one of your other physics hubs I am a geek (although less than my friends who had a bet over if the Higgs would be found or not!). This is a great simple analogy especially as the concept started to try to fix the maths!

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, Mike! I love making things as simple as possible, but no simpler, as Einstein supposedly said once. People tend to get lost in trying to sound smart or... well, I don't know what else, but it has taken me years of studying this stuff in order to distill what is the essence into plain English. And now, it's a passion of mine!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I have casually heard of the Higgs boson, but had no idea what it was. Thank you for adding to my body of knowledge. Great hub!

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks for taking a look, Mel. I always appreciate the feedback!

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Despite my engineering degree (many moons ago, now) this is the first time I've seen mass defined as resistance to movement. But it makes sense. And I learned something about the Higgs field, too. Good job.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Ron- Technically I should have said "resistance to acceleration", but I think the point comes across. Glad you enjoyed the read! I started out as an engineering student as well, also quite a few moons ago.

    • Barack James profile image

      Barack James 2 years ago from Green City in the Sun

      So refreshing hub; physics can be a mystery that requires a lifetime experiments: Computers have managed to generate Higgs boson, however, computers too cannot relate it to the law of gravity:)

    • goatfury profile image
      Author

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Barack, I think truly understanding how and why gravity works may always be a mystery, but we are certainly closer to understanding at least the mechanism of how it gives objects mass, and that's something.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 2 years ago from Kansas

      Thanks for making the complex easier to understand.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks for checking it out, Pawpaw! Was it actually understandable?

    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 23 months ago

      You've done a much more accessible job of explaining the Higgs than myself, I'm afraid - https://hubpages.com/education/The-Higgs-Boson-Unc...

      Excellent job I enjoyed the analogies - especially the syrup one.

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