Sean Carroll, Marie-Claire Shanahan, and the Higgs

I'm pretty sure that for a long time people who were supposed to know what they were talking about were explaining the Higgs Boson wrong. This led other people to think of it the wrong way as well. I'm not even speaking here of the whole "god particle" thing. That's a whole nuther, equally annoying, issue. But eventually, the real story started to get around and I think it is possible to get a reasonable idea of what the thing is without being a theoretical physicist or particle expert.

Let me try. Here's my current version of the Higgs Boson. There seems to be three things to know about it:

1) It is a continuous field that gives rise to a particle under certain circumstances. Sort of like how air is continuous (within our atmosphere) and occasionally gives rise to a snowflake (screaming rants from physics grad student blogerinos about how horrid the snowflake metaphor is in 3...2...1...0...)

2) One of the things the Higgs does is to impart the property of mass to certain, but by no means all, other particles. That these particles having mass, in turn, causes them to interact with other particles the way they do. Ultimately, this means that without the Higgs particle-field thingie, there would be no atoms, or at least, no atoms other than Helium, and I'm not so sure about Helium.

3) The Higgs Boson appears to exist based on this year's science achievement.

Sean Carroll is two people, a physicist and a biologist. One of them, the Physicist (Sean M. Carroll), is two people: An actual physicist and an excellent science communicator. Or, should I rephrase: The ability to communicate effectively about science gives scientists the property of mass. And by mass, I mean relevance. Sean Carroll is massive.

Marie-Claire Shanahan is also, I'm sure, two or three people at least, and is an outstanding communicator in her own right. As a science education expert, Marie-Claire occasionally subs for Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking, and this Sunday, tomorrow, Marie-Claire will interview Sean Carroll about the Higgs Boson.

This, dear reader, is your best chance to understand what the heck the Higgs Boson really is, other than reading Sean's new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.

I am ensaddeded that I will not be home tomorrow evening at the time of the show and thus can't listen to the live-before-an-Internet Audience production and participate in the chat room, but you can. I'll catch the podcast when it comes out later in the week.

Have a massive day.

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All fundamental particles (gauge bosons, electrons, neutrinos, quarks and other leptons) are modeled as quantum fields, like the Higgs quantum field. The difference is that these other fields have zero expectation value, which means only their excitations (i.e. particles) are objects of study. The Higgs quantum field has non-zero expectation value which is what gives rise to mass terms for various particles (but not the photon, gluon or graviton) via the Higgs mechanism, and also has excitations. That's what a Higgs boson is, an excitation of the Higgs field.

I thought Higgs interactions were the cause of 100% of the mass of neutrinos and electrons and the W and Z bosons, but only about 1% of the mass of protons and neutrons (which are made of quarks), and therefore regular neutral matter. But since the W and Z bosons would be massless in a universe without the Higgs field, neutrons would decay to protons much more easily. Since the mass of electron figures prominently in the math of the hydrogen atom, chemistry and spectroscopy would be nothing like our universe, even if elements past helium could exist.

Thanks for the kind write up, Greg. Hope you enjoy the episode once the podcast is out!

By mcshanahan (not verified) on 11 Dec 2012 #permalink