The“Higgs particle,” proposed almost 50 years ago to allow for consistency between theoretical predictions and experimental observations in elementary particle physics, appears to have been discovered — even as the detailed nature of the discovery allows room for even more exotic revelations that may be just around the corner.
It is natural for those not deeply involved in the half-century quest for theHiggs to ask why they should care about this seemingly esoteric discovery. There are three reasons.
First, it caps one of the most remarkable intellectual adventures in human history — one that anyone interested in the progress of knowledge should at least be aware of.
Second, it makes even more remarkable the precarious accident that allowed our existence to form from nothing — furtherproof that the universe of our senses is just the tip of a vast, largely hidden cosmic iceberg.
And finally, the effort to uncover this tiny particle represents the very best of what the process of science can offer to modern civilization.
If one is a theoretical physicist working on some idea late at night or at a blackboard with colleagues over coffee one afternoon, it is almostterrifying to imagine that something that you cook up in your mind might actually be real. It’s like staring at a large jar and being asked to guess the number of jelly beans inside; if you guess right, it seems too good to be true.
The prediction of the Higgs particle accompanied a remarkable revolution that completely changed our understanding of particle physics in the latter part of the 20thcentury.
Just 50 years ago, in spite of the great advances of physics in the previous half century, we understood only one of the four fundamental forces of nature — electromagnetism — as a fully consistent quantum theory. In just one subsequent decade, however, not only had three of the four known forces succumbed to our investigations, but a new elegant unity of nature had been uncovered.
Itwas found that all of the known forces could be described using a single mathematical framework — and that two of the forces, electromagnetism and the weak force (which governs the nuclear reactions that power the sun), were actually different manifestations of a single underlying theory.
How could two such different forces be related? After all, the photon, the particle that conveyselectromagnetism, has no mass, while the particles that convey the weak force are very massive — almost 100 times as heavy as the particles that make up atomic nuclei, a fact that explains why the weak force is weak.
What the British physicist Peter Higgs and several others showed is that if there exists an otherwise invisible background field permeating all of space, then the particles that convey someforce like electromagnetism can interact with this field and effectively encounter resistance to their motion and slow down, like a swimmer moving through molasses.
As a result, these particles can behave as if they are heavy, as if they have a mass. The physicist Steven Weinberg later applied this idea to a model of the weak and electromagnetic forces previously proposed by Sheldon L.Glashow, and everything fit together.
This idea can be extended to the rest of particles in nature, including the protons and neutrons and electrons that make up the atoms in our bodies. If some particle interacts more strongly with this background field, it ends up acting heavier. If it interacts more weakly, it acts lighter. If it doesn’t interact at all, like the photon, it remains massless....