What is God Particle aka the Higgs Boson?

The Oh My God Particle!

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Higgs Boson
An example of simulated data modeled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. (Source: http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469)

The Higgs Boson God particle has been widely talked about in the recent past. You might have heard people talking about how its discovery has simplified explanations for why electrons have mass. You might have even heard about how it has aided in proving that the Standard Model is not incorrect. The discovery of the particle received tremendous press, and, was celebrated quite remarkably. So, what is all the fuss about? What really is the Higgs Boson? How does it help explain certain phenomena? Why is it called God particle? If you are looking for answers to any of these questions, or, are simply intrigued and want to know more about the Higgs Boson, then, look no further, you’re at the right place.

The Higgs boson is considered to be the particle excitation of the Higgs field and is named after the physicist, Peter Higgs. Peter Higgs and five other scientists are credited with coming up with the mechanism that provided evidence to the existence of such a particle.

What is all the fuss about then?

The reason there has been so much buzz surrounding the Higgs boson recently is because its existence was only experimentally proven as recently as 2012. The reason it took so long for scientists to confirm its existence is the fact that the technology needed for confirming the existence of the Higgs boson, had not existed for a very long time.

The discovery of this particle was made possible by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The Large Hadron Collider is a particle collider and is gigantic in nature. It is the largest machine in the world. It is present in a humongous tunnel near Geneva in Switzerland.  Without the LHC, it would have been an extremely daunting, and some can even say, an improbable, task to prove the existence of the Higgs boson.

Particle accelerators and the Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator that is used to accelerate charged atomic and subatomic particles to large enough speeds to observe their behavior. The Large Hadron Collider is currently the largest among such colliders. The tunnel in which it lies is massive and is 27km in circumference. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and is used for studying the observations made by the collision of particle beams, generally, proton beams.

CERN LHC Particle Collider
CERN LHC Particle Collider (Source: CERN)

Particle accelerators such as the LHC are considered to be fundamental in answering some of the questions that remain in the field of particle physics. These accelerators generally use an electromagnetic field to carry out the acceleration. You may ask, why is there a need for an electromagnetic field? To understand this, you will need to know how particle accelerators work. Particle accelerators need to have a source. A source is what generates particles such as protons and electrons. The electric fields are used in the process of accelerating these particles while the magnetic fields are responsible for controlling the paths of these particles.

To generate electrons for these particle accelerators, ‘electron guns’ are generally used. The electron gun consists of a cathode, which, is heated to high temperatures causing electrons to be produced from its surface. The electron gun consists of electrical and magnetic deflectors and the electron beam is obtained from a narrow hole at the end of the gun. This electron gun can also be viewed as an accelerator since it also consists of an electric field that accelerates the electrons, and magnetic deflectors that help in controlling the path. These electrons move towards the anode present in the gun and while passing through the electric field pick up speed and come out of the gun as a narrow beam.

To generate protons for the accelerators, hydrogen gas is used since only the nuclei of hydrogen atoms consist of single protons. The gas is ionized, and the protons and electrons are separated through electric fields and the beam of protons is obtained through a hole.

The beams produced are then collided and the particles that result from the collision are observed by detecting electrical signals. The detectors used in particle accelerators are built so that the electrical signals can be converted to digital data and analyzed. Higgs boson was detected in 2012 during such collisions.

Now that we know how Higgs boson was detected, let’s delve into what it really is.

The Higgs boson is a particle that is generated by the quantum excitation of the Higgs field. You may ask, what is the Higgs field? Well, the Higgs field is a field that exists evenly distributed throughout the universe. Some particles are said to interact with this field and obtain mass while some particles are said to not interact with it. The Higgs field is quite dissimilar to other fields, since, it is scalar. A scalar field is one where every point in the field can be associated with a scalar value.

So, what does that mean? It means that the Higgs field is directionless, it has a spin value of 0. Unlike other fields such as electromagnetic fields, the Higgs field has no preferred direction.

Random Quiz

The particles carrying the strong force are the:

Correct! Wrong!

The strong interaction is observable at two ranges: on a larger scale (about 1 to 3 fm), it is the force that binds protons and neutrons (nucleons) together to form the nucleus of an atom. On the smaller scale (less than about 0.8 fm, the radius of a nucleon), it is the force (carried by gluons) that holds quarks together to form protons, neutrons, and other hadron particles.


What is all this stuff about the Standard Model then?

All things in this world are constituted by atoms. Atoms, in turn, are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. These particles are made up of even smaller subatomic particles. The Standard Model was able to explain the interactions between these subatomic particles and hence provided the basis for the explanations of electricity, magnetism and radioactivity. However, the Standard Model, before the discovery of the Higgs boson, was unable to provide evidence for how these particles gained mass.

This is where the Higgs field comes into play. Like I mentioned earlier, some particles interact with this field, while some do not. The ones that do not interact with this field, like the photons, do not gain mass and can hence travel at the speed of light. The ones that do interact with this field, like the electrons, gain mass through the interactions. Think of it this way, if the Higgs field did not exist, there would be no interactions with the field and therefore, all subatomic particles would have no mass.

Why is it called the God particle?

Perhaps, the term ‘God particle’ is justified. The Higgs boson helped fill a large hole in the Standard Model and is considered to have provided evidence that proves a large number of phenomena. In some sense, this particle is truly Godly!

But, the term ‘God particle’ arises from the title of Leon Lederman’s book, ‘The God Particle’, in which, the Higgs boson is the primary subject of discussion. Leon Lederman is credited with providing this particular title to the particle. But, the story is actually even more fascinating. Lederman wanted to title his book as ‘The Goddamn Particle’ because of how difficult it is to find the particle and actually prove its existence. His publishers, however, would not allow for such an audacious title and the book was then titled ‘The God Particle’.

Is this particle dangerous? Can it prove to be detrimental?

Stephen Hawking has cautioned the world about the potential dangers that the Higgs boson might harbor. Some researchers believe that this particle could lead to the destruction of the universe. However, this destruction will not take place anytime soon. These researchers estimate that this catastrophe is at least billions of years away. The mass of the Higgs field will be to blame if this occurs. Since the Higgs field is present everywhere, even a small change in its mass would cause major instability in the universe, causing the universe to collapse.

Let’s recap

In conclusion, the Higgs boson is the result of the excitation of the Higgs field. The Higgs field is a scalar field that provides mass to the subatomic particles that interact with it. Without the Higgs field, all subatomic particles would have no mass. This entire mechanism was suggested by Peter Higgs and five other scientists in 1964. The Higgs boson, however, was not discovered until 2012, when it was first discovered by the Large Hadron Collider, which, is a particle accelerator. The name ‘God particle’ was the result of Lederman’s similarly titled book about the Higgs boson.

Although the ‘God particle’ certainly seems to be a misnomer, the name given to the Higgs boson might have done the world a whole lot of good. The title given to the particle has ensured that more and more people look for the Higgs boson on the internet and try to understand what it means and how much effort has been put in, to find it. The name, ‘God particle’ could even be the reason why you are currently reading this. Any scientist would give you the death stare for calling the Higgs boson, the ‘God particle’, but, maybe the name is not so bad after all. Perhaps, the magnitude of the reception of the news of the discovery of Higgs boson should be entirely credited to this misnomer!

Read More:

  1. Here’s What Happens When a Higgs Boson Dies — and What It Means for Particle Physics
  2. Physicists’ search for rare Higgs boson pairs could yield new physics

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