Tomorrow morning, researchers at CERN, the Large Hadron Collider’s home, will announce new results from the past year of hunting for the Higgs boson. The buzz is that it will be good news — good news for the standard model of physics at least. Once again, we resurrect Motherboard’s primer to the Higgs, e.g. the “god particle.”
What we talk about when we talk about nothing.
What happens when researchers have that Higgs boson and, you know, can hold it up to the gawking public like its an oversized sea bass hanging from a scale? But it’s not a sea bass, it’s the god particle—so does that, like, mean we’ll have disproved god or something?
The truth is that it’s not all that mind-blowing—it’s too confusing and counter-intuitive to be mind-blowing.
Here’s what’s called the Standard Model. It’s like a subatomic periodic table of elements, ordering and relating the stuff that makes up subatomic particles. It explains the fundamental forces in nature: electromagnetism, the weak force, and the strong force, but not really gravity. We’ve nailed everything on it to the wall, so to speak, except the Higgs. Let’s look at the Standard Model:
See, it’s very neat and convenient—just play along, OK?—but there’s still that spot to be filled with the Higgs boson. The Higgs is on the chart because of a particular weirdness or problem with those W and Z bosons: they have a huge mass, whereas their other boson family member, the photon, has none. The Higgs boson “fixes” the problem, makes everything add up right in the Standard Model. We just have to find it. Science isn’t in the game of assuming anything is there. Science nails shit to the wall. And then goes even deeper.
It’s not like the Higgs is hiding, though. The thing is, the Higgs boson is everywhere—so maybe hiding in plain sight. Theoretically.
The Higgs boson is nature’s ultimate sycophant.
When you ask what is nothing? the answer in our universe is the Higgs field. Like, the particles that come together with other particles into the structures of atoms that come together into molecules that form up cells and then tissues and organs and then things like us, they themselves don’t have an intrinsic mass. The idea here is that as they move through space they interact with this Higgs field and the little Higgs guys cling to the other particles like the cool funny dude at a party, giving them mass. The idea is very elegant. The more energy a particle has, the cooler and funnier it is, the more Higgs bosons it attracts. And is has more mass. The Higgs boson is nature’s ultimate sycophant.
And the idea is also the beginning of many more ideas about things like how the universe started, how maybe the universe was born as a mere quantum fluctuation in the Big Bang or why there is Something and not Nothing. You know, nature abhors a vacuum. But. . . but. . .
The idea is god-like a bit, sure. And very exciting. Maybe even gravity, another white whale of physics, has its own mechanism somewhere down the Higgs rabbit hole. Maybe it will help explain this whole asymmetry mess between particles and anti-particles.
We’re this close. But, of course, there’s these dudes ready with an anti-Big Bang theory just in case it isn’t there.