Sunday, September 16, 2012

What is the Higgs Boson?

Science for Writers - Higgs Boson
Welcome to the first official Science for Writers post. Last week I gave you a quick introduction. This week we will be discussing the Higgs Boson, its related Higgs Field and the standard model. Throughout the post I will discuss how this could be used in writing, but the main focus is on the science.

The science here shouldn't be too taxing. After all the Higgs Boson is science for the masses. If you aren't already, you'll be groaning at that joke by the end of the post!

I have put important words in bold. These words are important in physics and I will refer to them throughout the post. It isn't overly important that you know the exact meaning, just so long as you get the gist of what they are you will be fine understanding this science for the masses.

A bit of background science

Before we can really discuss what this mysterious particle is, we need to look at the bigger picture. There is a theory called the Standard Model of Particle Physics. So far this theory has been extremely successful in explaining how particles interact and a load of other physics-y stuff that is beyond the scope of this post.

Essentially the Standard Model predicts the existence of two types of matter (that is stuff). There are six quarks and six leptons. These twelve matter particles are all shown in the diagram which I will show in a few minutes.

The model also predicts four fundamental forces. The one we have all heard of is the gravitational force, which is all to do with, you guessed it, gravity. Essentially this force governs how matter interacts with matter. Really massive lumps of matter like stars and planets produce a gravitational field which attracts other bits of matter like you or me or even other stars. Despite this gravity is the weakest of all four forces.

Writing Link: All objects have some amount of gravity. The Earth pulls us down with a force equal to our mass (in kg) times 10 (or 9.81 to be precise). This is our weight in Newtons (N). As writers you should remember that not all planets exert the same force. For example the Moon has much weaker gravity than the Earth. The more massive an object the stronger its gravity. Remember this if writing sci-fi. The chances of your characters being able to run around on a planet that is not their own without training is slim. Perhaps a scene where they acclimatise to the planet's gravity would help.

The next force it predicts is the electromagnetic force. This is all to do with light. Now, in everyday terms light is what we can see, but in physics light is anything on the electromagnetic spectrum. the EM force is the second strongest of the four forces.

Rather than explain each point on this spectrum I will give you a diagram:
electromagnetic spectrum
Electromagnetic Spectrum courtesy of

Writing Link: Humans can see light in the visible light part of the spectrum. We use UV to tan ourselves, X-Rays to image ourselves, Gamma to radiate surgical tools and treat cancer. We use infra-red to toast stuff and use remote controls, microwave to heat quick meals and use mobile phones, and radio to send music to radios. However, not all creatures see with visible light. Some insects use UV light to see. If your story is not set on Earth and the star your planet orbits emits a higher quantity of say UV or infra-red radiation then the eyes of other species might have evolved to see in those regions primarily. 

The other two forces it predicts are the weak and the strong nuclear forces. These forces interact at the sub-atomic level and are more complicated to explain than the others. We don't really see the impact of these two forces despite the strong nuclear force being the strongest of all four.

Each force is predicted to have a force carrier - that is a particle that gives off the force. The photon carries the electromagnetic force; the gluon carries the strong nuclear force; the W and Z bosons carry carry the weak nuclear force. These four particles are called bosons. You may well be asking 'But what about gravity?' Well, gravity doesn't play nice with the other three forces and physicists just can't seem to get a unified theory that explains all four forces in one go. Luckily gravity is so weak it is negligible at the level the other three forces work at so all is not lost.

Writing Link:  We have yet to unify gravity with the rest of the forces. If you are a sci-fi writer who bases their stories in the future perhaps you could write about the impact of unifying the forces. What would it mean for the general population? Do some research into the gravitational force and get creative.

The twelve matter particles and the four force carrying bosons all fit neatly into a table like this. Notice the boson at the bottom we haven't discussed yet, we are about to talk about this big guy.
standard model of particle physics
Standard Model of Particle Physics courtesy of the BBC
For more information on the Standard Model visit CERN's public science page.

What's the Higgs Boson?

The Higgs Boson is the particle that 'generates' the Higgs Field. Before discussing this further I need to give one important fact:

The Higgs Boson is the particle that gives other particles mass.

OK, with that basic fact out in the open we can delve a little deeper.

The Higgs Field can be thought of like the sea. Water is made of H2O molecules, even though you can't see the individual molecules they are there. Likewise, the Higgs Field is made of Higgs Bosons. The Higgs Bosons form the sea that is the Higgs Field.

All the fish in the sea are particles. Some particles, like the photon, are like tuna fish; they whiz through the water (the Higgs Field) without being affected by the water. These particles don't interact with the field and have no mass.

Other particles, such as Up-Quarks, are like a morbidly obese man swimming through a custard sea. They crawl through the liquid really slowly. These interact heavily with the field and so have lots of mass.

That analogy will do for basic purposes but it is slightly misleading. It is not the particles mass causing them to move at different speeds through this field, but rather, their speed dictating their mass. Those particles that interact heavily with the Higgs Field move slower and so have a higher mass. Particles that don't heavily interact with the Higgs Field move faster and so have a lower mass.

Writing Link: You're probably wondering what this means for writers. And with good reason, might I add. It isn't immediately obvious why anybody should care about the Higgs Boson, especially writers. Personally knowledge for the sake of knowledge is fantastic, others disagree. If you are writing sci-fi the discovery of the Higgs Boson is monumental. Your characters have a new science they can use. You could have characters discuss the Higgs Boson.

Perhaps a more exciting possibility is playing the what if game here. What if you could control the Higgs Boson? What if your character could change the strength of the field and make things heavier or lighter in a specific area? Could it be weaponised in your world?

For a different explanation of the Higgs Boson watch this video:
or this one:

Why Should I Care?

Well, to answer this question let's look back in history:

When the electron was discovered in 1897 all the scientists were cheering. The public were all asking 'why?'.  Today we could not live our modern lives without knowing about the electron. The discovery enabled us to create things like television and readily available consumer electronics.

When the X-Ray was properly discovered in 1895 the public's reaction was less than amazing. To be honest, I don't need to explain what the X-Ray has done for society since then.

Almost all discoveries in physics that were once boring theory were met with a similar reaction to the Higgs Boson. Nobody knew why they should care. Right now the implications of the discovery on the general public are not known. But I am almost 100% certain that in our lifetimes there will be a practical use outside of science for the discovery of the Higgs Boson.

Even if there isn't an application for the discovery think about what it has already done. When the Higgs Boson was theorised we did not have the technology to discover it. It was physically impossible to get to the energies required to smash hadrons together. We did not have the computer power to analyse the data even if we could smash them together with enough energy.

The creation of the LHC and all the other machines needed to make the discovery have led and are still leading to great advances in the following areas:
  • Engineering
  • Energy Sciences
  • Computing
  • Analysis of Big Data
  • International Collaboration
  • Large Scale Project Management
  • Physics
  • Many, many more
Writing Link: Try to imagine the implications different discoveries in your fictional world have on your characters. For example a new medicine has been discovered on the world. Only two people have the disease it cures. What are the wider implications? What side-discoveries did it help with? What new understanding has it brought in general?

What Next?

Now you understand the Standard Model of Particle Physics and the Higgs Boson/Field you may be wondering how to advance your knowledge further. Here are some links with more information in this area:

This is good for an approachable, if slightly unreliable, source of further info. Using the references at the bottom will help you more than Wikipedia sometimes.

This site is great for a really simple explanation of the theory. However not all the content is from after the discovery.

Read the BBC article from when it was discovered.

These are the actual papers from the two independent sources at the LHC that detected the Higgs Boson. Obviously this is very science-y and aimed at other physicists. Open this up and make it look like you are really clever when your friends walk in!

So, there you have it. A brief guide to the Higgs Boson. I hope this has helped you and perhaps given you ideas for writing.

If you have any ideas for future Science for Writers posts please comment using the form below.

Edits:  17/09 - changed description of field to include the boson being the smallest part of the field.
           17/09 - changed example of heavy particle to the Up-Quark

Matt B


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