The Higgs boson: Why should we care?

The Higgs boson: Why should we care?

Summary: The scientific community is cock-a-hoop over CERN's discovery of a something that looks like the Higgs boson. But why? And what does it help us understand?

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

The Higgs boson — or at least, a boson "consistent with" it — has been found. The question now is: why should we care?

Well, the Higgs boson is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. This model explains the physics of the atom and the nucleus. Lots of weird little zippy particles (quarks and Z particles, for instance) predicted by the model have been found, which made it seem reasonably reliable.

Large Hadron ColliderScientists have identified the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Image credit: CERNSo physicists would be very annoyed if something as big as the Higgs boson were to pull the rug out from under the whole thing by failing to exist.

Another reason for CERN's celebrations is that it was hard to find. That's because it is so big. For a particle.

Thanks to Einstein, we know that mass and energy are the same thing, and the Higgs is a very high-energy particle indeed. It was, in fact, lurking somewhere between 125GeV and 126GeV on the energy spectrum. Top quarks are very massive particles, clocking in at 172GeV — around the same as an atom of Tungsten. By contrast, the humble photon has an energy of the order of a single electron volt, effectively having zero mass.

Large particles are unstable, decaying quickly into smaller particles. This means that any naturally occurring Higgs bosons would have decayed long, long ago, before there even were galaxies to be far, far away.

It also means that it is not the Higgs itself that physicists are looking for, but the products of its decay. In the case of the top quark, these smaller particles are mostly the bottom quark, but also the strange and down quarks. The Higgs boson should decay almost immediately into some combination of electrons and hadrons, and it is these energetic traces that scientists went looking for.

A very energetic explosion

To find something so big, particle physicists needed to make a very energetic explosion. So they built the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. This is a monumentally powerful particle accelerator, capable of creating the kinds of collisions between proton beams that might just produce a few stray Higgs bosons, which would then decay in a tell-tale way.

What does the Higgs boson do? Mostly, it provides evidence of the Higgs field. This was an idea put forward by Professor Peter Higgs to explain why matter has mass. Conceptually, it is like a sticky gluey jelly that permeates the whole of the universe. The strength of a particle's interaction with the Higgs field determines its mass.

All elementary particles are either bosons or fermions. A fermion is something like an electron, and is generally associated with matter. A boson, in general, is a force-carrying particle that mediates a field. (In my nuclear physics classes, fermions were described to me as being like tigers [I confess, I have forgotten why], while bosons were like cattle, always being in a field. Har har.) For example, photons are the force carriers that mediate the electromagnetic field.

So a Higgs boson is the force-carrying particle, or smallest excitation possible, of the Higgs field. Find it, and we prove the existence of the Higgs field, and thus the completeness (almost) of the standard model of physics.

Beyond this, it gets trickier. The trouble with answering the 'Why we should care?' question is that the reason we should care is almost as inexplicable as the physics itself. It confirms the standard model. It means we don't have to go back to the drawing board and start again.

The impact of the discovery for the Average Joe is not going to be huge. It is massive for physics, because it is an extra fact. And there is nothing scientists like more than an extra fact.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Lucy Sherriff

About Lucy Sherriff

Lucy Sherriff is a journalist, science geek and general liker of all things techie and clever. In a previous life she put her physics degree to moderately good use by writing about science for that other tech website, The Register. After a bit of a break, it seemed like a good time to start blogging about weird quantum stuff for ZDNet. And so here we are.

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  • Gravity not due to any Higgs field

    Let me clarify, gravity or mass came with so called big bang and not after it. I researched for the last few years and submitted a US patent application on gravitational modulation, which the USPTO is holding back from publication due reasons unknown to me. My site gives some details on my work which is slated to be published in the form of a book.
    • You studied physics for a whole couple years?

      Wow you must be really good at it
      • Keep practicing :)

        @ sayhi2yourmom4me, or emmeffer, for short, how long have you studied reading? Keep at it! You'll improve with practice!

        PS. I wonder if it's too late to change my name to "emmeffer"?
    • Reply

      Anadish, I took a look at your page that is some pretty cool stuff man, I didnt quite understand much of it but Ill do my research for sure to see what its all about.
      • Thanks

        You may have got much more information if the USPTO decided to publish my patent application on 12 July. Even if they keep dithering, I shall be out with my preliminary observations sooner than later (end of the year or so), because it presents some very 'fitting ideas' which integrate a lot of cosmology and particle physics together.
  • The Higgs boson: Why should we care?

    I've read a half dozen articles about this discovery and none of the authors the questionin this articles headline. Why should we care?

    Do not take that the wrong way, I am in support of science for the sake of science and general knowledge but the tech writers I've seen have done a very poor job of letting readers know how it may impact their lives. It's almost like the news we have discivered planets that may have life, intresting to be sure but not something that means much to the vast majority.
    • I'm sure that the vast majority would be very interested in alien life

      Particularly those people of a strong religious persuasion ;-). But I'm suspecting the immediate benefit of discovering this particle will only be to advance particle physics. Unless you also consider the advances in engineering and computing that needed to happen in order to build the LHC?
      • Real world applications?

        I'm inclined to agree. I can't think of any immediate real world uses for the knowledge. But it is good to know that the standard model is pretty much right.

        (I'm guessing Higgs himself is feeling pretty pleased, too.)

        But the average person buying a skinny latte is probably not going to have his or her world rocked by the discovery any time soon.

        Lucy Sherriff
    • The Higgs boson: Why should we care? The Higgs boson: Why should we care?

      Oh thank you for noticing these explanation don't grab the everyday Joes by the news flash. This is what SiFi and Comic books are for. Just shoot way past reality and speculate the fans will argue there way back to reality on there own. Works like a tractor beam. :D
    • The Journey

      Science is the pursuit of that which can be known.
      This is why people discuss things you do not quite understand. The ideas are out of your reach. You *try* to understand them....
      Suddenly you accept the "facts" *know* nothing.
      You missed The Journey.

      [Words of wisdom from Grand Theft Auto IV]
  • Man I wish we could edit our posts

    "none of the authors answer the question in"
  • ok

    so why should we care?
  • Bazinga!

    The only reason I care is that The Big Bang Theory will use this discovery in at least 8 new episodes!
  • Better analogy, please.

    The offered lay explanation of the Higgs field seems to be that it is like molasses, neck-deep water, or in the case of this piece, jelly.

    Plunging something into jelly does not make it heavy. I makes it stickey. I know. I tried it once.

    Would some bright, aspiring physicist please offer up some description of the nature of the interaction between a particle and the Higgs field that yields the properties (inertia, gravitational attraction, increase of apparent mass with increasing relative velocity...) that one associates with mass... Jelly ain't ever going to cut it.
    • Dunno

      Maybe it's the peanut butter.
      Robert Hahn
    • you're at the wrong place

      this is ZDNet, not some science website...
  • Why should we are?

    I don't know why WE should care but i can say why i do. Well after spending however many millions of $$ to build cern its finally producing results can change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. I am not a scientist or a physicist i am just your average 25 year old that likes ted talks and science stuff. I know this wont affect any ones lives any time soon and it may never will (discovering dinosaurs bones didn't either) allot of people still believe that god created us all.. but i am not getting into that. Whats fascinating to me is that we keep learning more and more about where we came from, and what we actually are.
    • Will the Higgs field matter?

      It just might matter a lot. if the interaction of matter with the Higgs field is what prevents things from traveling faster than light, then understanding the Higgs field may turn out to be the key to realizing the warp drive. And anyone who has seen StarTrek can tell you, that will matter a whole bunch...
  • The question is not answered

    Why should we care? To me the question is not answered byt his article...
    It explains the reasoning behind the experiment - to prove a theory.
    For me there must be something valuable in this knowledge - millions of dollars worth of LHC building to prove a theory - but how can this knowledge change the world? Where can this knowledge be applied to useful technologies that will improve the human race as a species? This is a large investment with seemingly very little return in terms of advancement in technology or quality of life. What can the LHC be used for now? We seem to have the answer, so where do we go from here??? What does it mean - anyone???
    • Patience

      This findings validates the theory at this time.
      This is similar in scale to the discovery of the electon and the transistor.
      We look back at those findings and the technology that it has created in amazement and wonder - I do anyway.
      I guarantee that generations will look back in a similar way reagrding this discovery. We should care because it is further understanding and knowledge of how the universe and everything in it works.