What's the Higgs Boson and Why Do We Care?

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Researchers at CERN have announced a major finding that, while they're being cautious and cagey because they're conservative people, is clearly the first observation of the Higgs boson, popularly known as the "God particle." This is what the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was built to find, and apparently it worked. The press release reads, in part:

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage,” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, “but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication.”

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. “The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

“It’s hard not to get excited by these results,” said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. “We stated last year that in 2012 we would either find a new Higgs-like particle or exclude the existence of the Standard Model Higgs. With all the necessary caution, it looks to me that we are at a branching point: the observation of this new particle indicates the path for the future towards a more detailed understanding of what we’re seeing in the data.”

What's that "5 sigma" business? Read Brian Cox's explanatory tweet for more -- basically it means scientists are very, very confident that the Higgs boson has indeed been found.

So this brings us to a tricky science problem: what is the Higgs boson and why do scientists care about it so much? There are lots of answers to those questions online, but their quality is all over the map. I've assembled three starting points for you below, and they are all reasonably non-technical. To make a very long and complex story very short, the Higgs boson explains why particles have mass, filling in a crucial gap in the Standard Model of physics. Because we haven't actually been able to observe the Higgs boson, this explanation has been hypothetical for half a century -- today's news means the hypothesis is (tentatively) confirmed.

1. BBC News Coverage

If you're a reader, read the BBC's coverage of the discovery. Representative quote: "The particle's confirmation would stand out as one of the great scientific achievements of the 21st Century so far." This one has some interesting interactive elements as well.

2. Fermilab Water Analogy

This three-minute video from Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln uses the metaphor of water in a swimming pool to explain the Higgs field, and in turn the Higgs boson. This is a nice, short explanation that's good enough for most of us.

3. BBC Horizon 2012: The Hunt for the Higgs

If you have an hour to kill (and this video isn't removed from YouTube by the BBC), here's a nice documentary about the people working at CERN, what they're looking for, and why it matters. This is easy to follow, well-made, and very accessible to the non-scientist. I particularly enjoyed the interview with Dr. Michio Kaku starting around 27:30 -- Kaku helps to convey the wonder and mystery of science, demonstrating why this process of discovery is so compelling. You might also enjoy the portion in which various scientists guess at the Higgs boson's mass region -- now that we know it's apparently around 125-126 GeV.

Representative quote: "If the laws of science are framed in their most perfect, their most symmetrical form, then life cannot exist at all. There'd be no mountains, rivers, valleys, no DNA, no people, nothing. But here we are. Our world is teeming with life and complexity, and yet that seems to be incompatible with perfection in our equations. By rights, we shouldn't be here!" -Dr. Michio Kaku.

A Brief Personal Note

It is very hard for me to type "Higgs" without typing "Higgins," for obvious reasons. If you must know, my rap name is "God Particle" and former _floss blogger Ransom Riggs often refers to me as "Higgs Bro-son" just to get my goat.

(Brian Cox tweet via Kottke.)

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July 4, 2012 - 7:54am
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