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

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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Why a Howling Wind Sounds So Spooky, According to Science
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Halloween is swiftly approaching, meaning you'll likely soon hear creepy soundtracks—replete with screams, clanking chains, and howling winds—blaring from haunted houses and home displays. While the sound of human suffering is frightful for obvious reasons, what is it, exactly, about a brisk fall gust that sends shivers up our spines? In horror movie scenes and ghost stories, these spooky gales are always presented as blowing through dead trees. Do bare branches actually make the natural wailing noises louder, or is this detail added simply for atmospheric purposes?

As the SciShow's Hank Green explains in the video below, wind howls because it curves around obstacles like trees or buildings. When fast-moving air goes around, say, a tree, it splits up as it whips past, before coming back together on the other side. Due to factors such as natural randomness, air speed, and the tree's surface, one side's wind is going to be slightly stronger when the two currents rejoin, pushing the other side's gust out of the way. The two continue to interact back-and-forth in what could be likened to an invisible wrestling match, as high-pressure airwaves and whirlpools mix together and vibrate the air. If the wind is fast enough, this phenomenon will produce the eerie noise we've all come to recognize in horror films.

Leafy trees "will absorb some of the vibrations in the air and dull the sound, but without leaves—like if it's the middle of the winter or the entire forest is dead—the howling will travel a lot farther," Green explains. That's why a dead forest on a windy night sounds so much like the undead.

Learn more by watching SciShow's video below.

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AFP/Stringer/Getty Images
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]


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