Monday, July 9, 2012

Higgs Boson

Enthusiastic physicists crowded the lecture hall, now an ersatz overflow assembly room.  The main auditorium had been packed by early morning with students and postdocs who had lined up before 5 AM on July 4 to procure a spot; other seats had been reserved for VIPs. They weren’t going to a rock concert.  Better than that, they were going to hear the results of two CERN experiments about the elusive Higgs boson.  

Overflow crowd in the lecture hall

Two non-physicist observers - CERN Wife and CERN Daughter - found seats by the wall in the lecture hall, and like everyone else in the room, sat facing a screen where two images from the main auditorium were posted: 1) a CERN logo noting "Higgs research update" and 2) views of the crowd in the main auditorium (where everyone in the overflow hall wanted to be).  

Waiting for the symposium to start

Lucky spectators in the auditorium,
as viewed on the screen at the overflow lecture hall

Like the scientists in the room, we too were excited to witness the "Higgs research update" announcements from the CMS and ATLAS experiments.  Although we might not have grasped everything explained by the two spokespeople - Joe Incandela of CMS and Fabiola Gianotti of ATLAS - we knew that the results of finding either the Higgs boson or a Higgs boson-like particle were extraordinary contributions to scientific knowledge of the natural world.

The Higgs boson is the particle that is believed to be responsible for giving mass to other elementary particles.  It is the last unidentified piece of the Standard Model, which describes all of nature at a fundamental level, except for gravity and dark energy.  The Standard Model has withstood concerted attack by experimentalists, who for 40 years have been trying to find ways of disproving it.  But they couldn’t.  If this discovery turns out to be the Standard Model Higgs boson, the Standard Model will have been proven correct yet again.  If it turns out not to be the Standard Model Higgs boson, further questions about the natural world would arise, which for physicists is even more interesting.  At least, this is what Spouse has told me.

So there we were, listening to the two spokespeople's reports about some of the most expensive, exciting, and exhilarating experiments in recent physics history.  Although CERN Wife and CERN Daughter needed further clarification to understand the talks and the graphs, the crowd's contagious enthusiasm needed no explanation.

Joe Incandela talks about the Standard Model

Another graph: Exclusion for SM Higgs

Explaining P-Values

Fitted signal strength

Intent physicists listening to the lecture

The CMS discovery

Joe Incandela summarizing CMS results:
discovering the Higgs boson (or boson-like particle)

Fabiola Gianotti explaining the ATLAS experiment

Gianotti explaining more results

ATLAS experiment's discovery
of the Higgs boson

Further research is needed...

Fabiola Gianotti thanking the ATLAS community

Summary of the director general of CERN,
Rolf-Dieter Heuer

Standing ovation in the auditorium

What, though, is a “boson” and why a “Higgs” boson?  A boson is a subatomic particle that has particular symmetries.  The name “boson” was coined by the theoretical physicist Paul Dirac to commemorate the contributions of the Indian mathematical physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974).  “Higgs” refers to the English theoretical physicist, Peter Higgs, who hypothesized the existence of this boson in 1964.  Although 5 other physicists (Robert Brout and François Englert from Belgium, and the Americans Gerald Guralnik and C.R. Hagen with Tom Kibble from England) wrote papers on the same topic at the same time as Higgs, the boson responsible for mass is named after Higgs.  Was that because his name is the easiest to pronounce?

And then there is the connotation of the Higgs boson being called the “God particle”.  This epithet comes from a popular book published in 1993 by physicist Leon Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi: The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question? Lederman wrote that the Higgs boson is key to understanding the structure of matter but is elusive.  However, he originally wanted to call it the “Goddamn Particle” because of its “villainous nature” - but the publisher wouldn’t let them use that term.

When Spouse had forwarded me the CERN press release several weeks ago about the July 4 seminar to update the scientific community regarding the Higgs boson search, I knew that I wanted to be at that colloquium, even if I needed to take Physics 101 again.  This was going to be a momentous announcement, and as an anthropologist, I wanted to be part of that audience and experience their exhilaration.  But I’m still a little unclear about term “boson.”  I agree with my cousin Nancy (a professor at Stanford University): considering how physicists name things like hard probes and hot quarks, wouldn’t a Higgs bosom make more sense?


  1. Too wonderful an opportunity to miss. And thank you for explaining it to us nerdy but not necessarily scientific types.

    1. Thanks...I needed explanation as well. I'm the daughter of a physicist and married to one, but this was never a subject that came easy to me. I think that if teachers in the US taught it as a "philosophy of the natural world" without all the math, then probably they'd get a lot more people interested in studying physics.

  2. I don't think I'm dumb, but I've been trying hard to figure this one out. I had just gotten strings and dimensionality "figured" and now this. I'll understand it about the time they figure time travel! Thanks for this good attempt. I do get the excitement, at least.

  3. Well, I was certainly thrilled to be in the audience last Wednesday. I don't understand strings or dimensionality, but am still figuring out this Higgs boson.

  4. You're so lucky to have been there. You make an excellent point about the teaching of physics. I love the phrase "philosophy of the natural world."