July 05, 2012
Blast from the past: The Higgs particle explained in plain language
Episode 1 appeared on January 24 of this year but what with all the excitement in recent days about the probable identification at long last of the Higgs particle, it seemed to me that reprising the post might be a good idea.
Below, the January post in its entirety.
1. The Higgs Mechanism
Imagine a cocktail party (above) of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbors. The ex-Prime-Minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighborhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people (below)
always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is, she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is harder to stop, and once stopped she is is harder to get moving again because the reclustering process has to be restarted. in three dimensions, and with the complications of relativity, this is the Higgs mechanism. In order to give particles mass, a background field is invented which becomes locally distorted whenever a particle moves through it. The distortion — the clustering of the field around the particle — generates the particle's mass. The idea comes directly from the physics of solids. Instead of a field spread throughout all space, a solid contains a lattice of positively-charged crystal atoms. When an electron moves through the lattice the atoms are attracted to it, causing the electron's effective mass to be as much as 40 times bigger than the mass of a free electron. The postulated Higgs field in the vacuum is a sort of hypothetical lattice which fills our universe.
2. The Higgs Boson
Now consider a rumor passing passing through our room full of uniformly-spread political workers. Those near the door (below)
hear of it first and cluster together to get the details, then they turn and move closer to their next neighbors who want to know about it too. A wave of clustering passes through the room. It may spread out to all the corners, or it may form a compact bunch (below)
which carries the news along a line of workers from the door to some dignitary at the other side of the room. Since the information is carried by clusters of people, and since it was clustering which gave extra mass to the ex-Prime Minister, then the rumor-carrying clusters also have mass. The Higgs boson is predicted to be just such a clustering in the Higgs field. We will find it much easier to believe that the field exists, and that the mechanism for giving other particles mass is true, if we actually see the Higgs particle itself.
[via David J. Miller, Physics and Astronomy, University College London, who titled the preceding "A quasi-political explanation of the Higgs boson for Mr. Waldegrave, U.K. Science Minister, 1993." Cartoons courtesy of CERN. Post inspired by Elizabeth Sterzinger, one of my crack team of Chicago correspondents. She's both a muse and amusing, an all-too-rare combination.]
July 5, 2012 at 10:01 AM | Permalink
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