It’s a discovery that’s been hard to ignore. Since early July, news websites and science blogs have been buzzing with the announcement that a Higgs boson-like particle has been observed in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The scale of this discovery has been compared repeatedly to man landing on the Moon, an analogy that is perhaps a bit difficult to swallow until you wade through the hype and understand the significance of the Higgs boson in our current model of physics.
Bosons are a type of fundamental particle, like electrons and the different varieties of quarks and neutrinos. A fundamental particle is one that cannot be broken down into smaller components; they are the indivisible building blocks of all matter and energy in our universe. Bosons are ‘force carriers’, a quantity of energy associated with a type of field. For example, photons are the force carriers of the electromagnetic field. They are essentially packets of energy that describe light. The already-identified W and Z bosons are the force carriers for the ‘weak nuclear force’ (one of the four fundamental forces of nature, the other three being gravity, electromagnetism, and strong nuclear force).
The Higgs boson is the force carrier for the Higgs field. Both field and particle were proposed in 1964 as a way of incorporating mass into the standard model of physics. As it stands, the mathematics of the standard model does not work if mass is used as ‘input’ into the mathematical machinery, but it also doesn’t give mass as an ‘output’, which has left a gaping hole in our understanding of the physical world. We know mass exists, and the Higgs field might be a method of describing it in terms of the other fundamental particles in the standard model.
The proposed Higgs field would create ‘drag’ on different particles. Some things would be greatl affected by the field and hold tightly to it (high mass), while some things would be less affected and be free to move more easily across the field (low mass). The best way to verify this theory is to observe the force carrier associated with the Higgs field: the elusive Higgs boson.
If the particle observed at the LHC is the Higgs boson (it might be something else!), then scientists could verify the existence of the Higgs field, completing the standard model by incorporating mass into it.
It might not be as flashy as the space program, but this discovery could add the finishing touches to the standard model of physics and for that, it is worth the hype.