Understanding what the “God particle” isn’t

by hexacoto

Particle tracks from a proton collision, image credits LiveScience

News of the Higgs boson came out a long time ago, and has been nicknamed by the media as the “God particle” as an accessible way of understanding what the particle is, much to the chagrin of many scientists. It has also been touted as the particle responsible for giving things mass.

Frankly, I didn’t quite understand it back then. Thus I sought to read up on it, and I learnt many surprising things about how it worked, and how many of the things the media said it did were untrue.

I stumbled upon the blog of theoretical physicist Matt Strassler, who tries to explain big science as painlessly as possible. His article, The Higgs FAQ 2.0, was immensely helpful in parsing out what the discovery of the Higgs boson really means and what the media touts it to be.

  • First and foremost: scientists aren’t particularly interested in studying the Higgs boson (particle). What they are really interested in is the Higgs field, which the discovery of the Higgs boson can help confirm that the field at least exists.

The media has been touting how the discovery of the particle will explain the building blocks of life and how matter come to be, but that really isn’t true. It isn’t the Higgs boson that gives mass to other particles, but the interaction of the other particles with the Higgs field itself.

  • What is the Higgs field then? The Higgs field is something that’s everywhere, measurable, and can be what’s called “zero” or “non-zero” on average. If it’s “non-zero,” it can have tangible physical effects on our world.

What’s so important about this is that because the Higgs field is non-zero in the universe, many particles have mass, including the electron, quarks, among others. “If the Higgs field’s average value were zero, those particles would be mass-less or very light. That would be a disaster; atoms and atomic nuclei would disintegrate. Nothing like human beings, or the earth we live on, could exist without the Higgs field having a non-zero average value.” Strassler writes in his FAQ.

  • The Higgs boson has been hyped up, while what’s really important, the Higgs field, has been ignored by the media

Strassler writes,

On the one hand, finding the Higgs particle is the easiest (and perhaps only) way for physicists to learn about the Higgs field — which is what we really want. In that sense, finding the Higgs particle is the first big step toward the main goalunderstanding the properties of the Higgs field and why it has a non-zero average value.

On the other hand, our modern media world insists on generating hype. And since explaining the Higgs field and its role and its relation to the Higgs particle takes too long for a typical news report or interview, journalists, and people talking to them, typically cut the story short. So the Higgs particle gets all the attention, while the poor Higgs field labors in obscurity, protecting the universe from catastrophe but getting none of its deserved credit…

  • The many simple explanations of how particles, such as electrons, gain mass by moving through the Higgs field is wrong.

Strassler writes,

And so a particle’s mass is the same no matter what it is doing — stationary relative to you or moving relative to you. And that’s important, because a particle is always stationary relative to itself! so it always, from its own point of view, should have the same mass.

Analogies which refer to the particle’s mass as having something to do with the field being like molasses, or a room full of people, are problematic analogies because they make it seem as though a particle must be moving in order to feel the effect of Higgs field, whereas in fact that is not the case.

I started by looking at those analogies, but the one below explains it the best, even though it still has to use the analogy of “moving through it” to achieve the idea of achieving mass.

 

I would say a more accurate analogy might be: There is a room full of magical fat that coalesces onto people who exists in the room. A person X exists in this space, and he coalesces a light amount of magic weight on from the air; he can move around lightly. A person Y also exists in this space, and in his existence, he coalesces a lot weight on him; he moves around less lightly. A person Z exists in this space, but he is special and coalesces no magical fat on him at all, and he is able to zip about at speeds unthinkable to X and Y. The encumbering of the coalesced magical fat on the persons are the given mass. Thus, X has less mass than Y, and Z, akin to the speed of light, and having no magical, cumbersome fat on him at all, is mass-less.

  • The Higgs field is not the universal giver of mass

Strassler writes,

…the Higgs field is not the universal giver of mass to things in the universe: not to ordinary atomic matter, not to dark matter, not to black holes. To most known fundamental particles, yes — and it is crucial in ensuring that atoms exist at all. But there would be just as much interesting gravitational physics going on in the universe if there were no Higgs field. There just wouldn’t be any atoms, or any people to study them.

He wrote in another post, titled “Does the Higgs Field Give the Higgs Particle Its Mass, or Not?

  1. The Higgs field does not give an atomic nucleus all of its mass, and since the nucleus is the vast majority of the mass of an atom, that means it does not provide all of the mass of ordinary matter.
  2. Black holes appear at the centers of galaxies, and they appear to be crucial to galaxy formation; but the Higgs field does not provide all of a black hole’s mass. In fact the Higgs field’s contribution to a black hole’s mass can even be zero, because black holes can in principle be formed from massless objects, such as photons.
  3. There is no reason to think that dark matter, which appears to make up the majority of the masses of galaxies and indeed of all matter in the universe, is made from particles that get all of their mass from the Higgs field.
  4. The Higgs field, though it provides the mass for all other known particles with masses, does not provide the Higgs particle with its mass.

That post becomes hard to understand further down the line, as Strassler uses mathematical equations to demonstrate how even if the Higgs field became zero on average instead of being non-zero, while electrons, quarks, neutrinos and W and Z particles, which are dependent on the Higgs field for their mass, would then become massless, Higgs particles still have mass, indicating that their mass must come from a different source, other than the Higgs field.

In all, understanding scientific breakthroughs is hard, especially when the media, in its bid to make it accessible to the general public, obfuscates or places unnecessary emphasis on the wrong things. This actually impedes the understanding of what’s actually important, and learning about how our world works.

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