The Bigg Hose-On

If you’ve always wondered what the Higgs Boson is all about, but stopped your physics studies with electrons, protons and neutrons, the New York Times offers a fairly accessible description of the theory and a personality-driven account of the efforts of two competing teams at CERN to “prove” or at least confidently infer the existence of the theorized particle.

Chasing the Higgs Boson

We’ve made many discoveries, most of them false.

In the early 1990s, I had a casual conversation with a physicist from CERN while we were each waiting for flights at Orly airport. I said I had been reading about Paul Dirac, so he told me that he had once studied under the great man himself, and then explained his current bombardment experiment. I forget the specifics, but he said they hit one atom with a particle, and I guessed which sort of particles came out. He said no, but his assistant chimed in to say I was right, so he thought for a few seconds, then said Yeah, but the other particles were just noise.

I didn’t know then that Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Or that he also developed Feynman diagrams, which appeal to my graphic sensibilities and may help me understand a tiny bit about quantum mechanics. Here, Flip Tanedo at Quantum Diaries uses Feynman diagrams to begin to explain the Higgs Boson.

Later, Flip gets to my internal struggle to accept that the vacuum of space is not empty.

Now we get to the idea of the vacuum—space when there isn’t any stuff in it. Usually when you think of the vacuum of empty space you’re supposed to think of nothingness. It turns out that the vacuum is a rather busy place on small scales because of quantum fluctuations: there are virtual particle–anti-particle pairs that keep popping into existence and then annihilating. Further still, vacuum is also filled with cosmic microwave background radiation at 2.725 Kelvin. But for now we’re going to ignore both of these effects. It turns out that there’s something much more surprising about the vacuum:

It’s full of Higgs bosons.

“It’s full of stars!” The ancients believed in the aether, and Dirac once postulated a sea of negatively-charged particles, before Quantum Field Theory cleaned up his math. To me a universe that is mostly vacuum, but full of bosons seems odd and rather wasteful, but that’s what the man just said.

Update 2013.03.07: I also wonder, was this field of bosons created, and evenly distributed, by the Big Bang, or was a field of bosons already there – already everywhere?

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