The Higgs Boson was named after an Edinburgh physicist, Peter Higgs. It is often thought that the Higgs boson forms an overwhelming majority of the composition of the answer to the question of how matter has gained mass. To those of us in agreement with the popular theory of the Big Bang as the origin to the universe, it is thought that shortly after the beginning of the cosmos, mass was inexistent. Indeed, nor were atoms and elements, but that is a different story. A field known as the Higgs field is thought to be the reason for the existence of mass – particles interacting with this field gain mass. This came about due to the decrease in the temperature of the universe (below a certain threshold value), and the amount of mass is directly proportional to the strength of the interaction between the particles.
In the 1970s, it had come to the attention of the global physics community that two of the fundamental forces were actually very closely related. The thing is, the proposed explanation for a unified force, namely the electroweak force, required that a field exist, whose constituent particles carry no mass. Unfortunately, it is known now that this is untrue, and so Higgs and his colleagues set about finding a solution.
Ian Sample has conveniently created an analogy using, rather imaginatively, ping pong balls, food trays, and brown sugar. Basically, as the universe was formed, a field known as the Higgs field came into existence. Many particles interacted with this field, and the more they interacted, the heavier they became, and no longer moved at the speed of light. The Higgs boson is analogous to a grain of sugar, i.e. the constituent of the Higgs field. As you may know, just like light itself, which has dual properties of wave and particle, so may the boson. The question scientists endeavour to answer is how a particle whose properties are yet to be ascertained, could be the reason behind the existence of mass. Sample conjectures that amongst other products from a collision between protons travelling at 0.999999c, Higgs was one of them. The problem is, unlike most other particles, such as photons, quarks, electrons etc., the Higgs boson decays very quickly, and as such is very difficult to observe. The standard model of the universe, developed in the 1970s, which is used today, has met unprecedented success over the past decades in having aspects of it being proven to exist, aside from links to gravity. However, the fundamental tool that is needed was the proof of the existence of the Higgs boson.
Why is it called the boson? Well, earlier I mentioned the electroweak force, a force unifying electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force from the standard model, which in itself contains the four fundamental forces – gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Scientists propose that each of these forces has a carrier particle, collectively named the boson, which interacts with matter. For example, the electromagnetic force has the photon as its boson, which carries the electromagnetic force with it, and transfers it to matter. Bosons are believed to be able to snap back in and out of existence in an instant and also be ‘entangled’ with other bosons around them. You see, this boson is not only a ‘fundamental force carrier’, it is also a term used for force carriers of various natures and designations. As a conveniently relevant example, I can explain the significance of the photon and bosons called the W and Z particles.
Going back to one of the constituents of the electroweak force, the weak force, its force carrying particles, as the photon is for the electromagnetic force, are two bosons named W and Z, discovered in the 1980s. Unlike the photon, these do have mass. A possible analogy for this next part is to think of these force carrying bosons as balls that are exchanged as particles exchange these force carriers to observe the weak force. Heavier balls have a lower throwing range, and similarly, so do heavier force carriers – this was known. But what gives these force carriers mass, which affects their behaviour? The Higgs theory. This is what scientists think could account for this fundamental difference between photons and the W and Z bosons, and, by extrapolation, for all other force carriers with nonzero masses. It has been estimated that 96% of the universe is invisible, made up of dark matter and physics that have not yet travelled within our grasp. The Standard Model only accounts for the 4% of the universe which we know so well, hence why we know it can never be a complete, unifying theory. For this, we need to be able to build on the concept, much like Einstein built on his theory of Special Relativity in order to account for gravity – which, incidentally, we are able to conclusively explain very little of. So in reality, the quest for the single Higgs particle (in this specific context) includes determining whether it is a Standard or Non-Standard Higgs particle.
The Standard Model Higgs particle would, if confirmed to be true, only one of numerous different types of Higgs particles. In order to gain an insight into the sheer complexity of the process and the need for excruciatingly thorough and systematic procedural protocols, consider the following. One of the possible ways a Higgs particle can decay, as it will within an instant of being detected, is by emitting two photons, which can be detected. However, there are so many other two-photon events that occur, which by themselves have had countless statistical analyses carried out on them in order to determine various values, some simple ones being the percentage of decay events leading to two photons being produced. Not only this, any discovery can only be (tentatively) validated if the confidence levels from data have a discrepancy of less than one in a million.
I hope that my chaotic and quick run through the world of Higgs has, if not invoked interest, at least informed you in an understandable manner. For those who are interested, the analysis of the Higgs boson’s (possible) discovery is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2012, for which time we should not only be hoping to know whether the Higgs particle that had been discovered is Standard or Non-Standard, but also whether it exists at all. Despite the disappointment that will no doubt be experienced by the disproval of the Higgs boson’s existence, each of the three possible outcomes will lead to progress, either building on current proven theories, adding flesh to the bones of hypothetical theories, or starting afresh in order to encourage the development of entirely new concepts altogether, which may or may not be more effective than building on our current ones.