Flummoxed by the Higgs? Here's what you need to know to understand why this discovery was a big deal.
Few were surprised by this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics: François Englert and Peter W. Higgs, who in 1964 independently proposed a mechanism for how fundamental particles acquire mass. That mechanism, now called the Higgs field (and its particle, the Higgs boson), was confirmed last year by the discovery of a Higgs particle at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva.
The Higgs is a bit outside S&T’s astro-focused purview — although that didn’t stop us from waxing philosophic about the discovery’s implications. But we’re a curious bunch, and we know that our readers are, too. So I’ve put together some info we’ve found helpful when poking around for insights into what this Higgs thing is.
If you want to understand the Higgs field in a nutshell, you’re in luck: TED-Ed put together an entertaining 3-minute video, which explains the Higgs with a cocktail party analogy. You can watch the video below, or on YouTube. (Note the Nobel prediction at the end: this video is from several months ago.)
One thing that’s often lost in these discussions: the Higgs field isn’t the only source of all particles’ masses. It is the source for the rest mass of many fundamental particles, such as quarks, which are the subatomic particles that make up protons and neutrons. But as “composite particles,” protons and neutrons mostly take their masses from the energy holding their constituent quarks together. So the Higgs is only responsible for about 1% of the mass of everyday stuff.
If the Higgs field only explains a tiny fraction of everyday stuff’s mass, why do we care? Because before the Higgs field, particle physics couldn’t explain why many fundamental particles have mass. And that was a big problem: a massless electron means no atoms. No atoms means stars, planets, and creatures go *poof.* Scientists don’t like things that go *poof.*
CERN has a good blog on what the Higgs boson is. There’s another intriguing blog that explains why the Higgs and gravity aren’t related. And the Nobel Prize people put out a wealth of information with the announcement: if you scroll down below the Nobel press release, there’s a file “for the public” and another file with “scientific background.” Pick your poison.
And congratulations to the winners, and to the hundreds of people who made the discovery possible! Englert and Higgs couldn't have won without the engineers, physicists, and students who worked hard at CERN.