We all grew up with our textbooks strained with the definition of matter – Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. But have you ever thought which particle gives matter its mass? In the 1964 physicists, Peter Higgs and François Englert proposed the idea of a novel energy field that permeates the universe better known as the Higgs field. This theorized field also paved the way for its associated fundamental particle, the famous Higgs boson.
In July 2012, a decades-long search ended with CERN’s LHC announcing the detection of the Higgs boson. This discovery is known to have filled in the last missing piece of the stunningly successful—albeit incomplete theory – the Standard Model – that describes three of the four fundamental forces in physics plus all known elementary particles.
What is the Standard Model?
Everything in the universe is made from a few fundamental particles governed by four fundamental forces (the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions). The inter-relation of these particles and forces is encapsulated in the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is a set of mathematical equations gifted to physics that categorizes the elementary particles into fermions and bosons.
Fermions are the blocks of matter that click together to make the Universe. Their quantum properties disable two fermions to occupy the same place at once, allowing them to build everything from atoms to planets. Bosons are the whispers that keep fermions in touch, mediating forces that bind and repel matter to explain why we can’t walk through walls, why small atoms can squeeze together into bigger ones, or why those bigger ones sometimes fall apart.
Science in general and physics, in particular, fantasizes patterns.
Around half a century ago, Peter Higgs with other physicists was trying to understand the origin of a basic physical feature: mass. You can think of mass as an object’s heft or, precisely, as the resistance it offers to have its motion changed. Push on a freight train to increase its speed, and the resistance you feel reflects its mass. But where do the mass and fundamental particles emerge from?
Back in the 1960s, when physicists examined the particle behavior with equations rooted in quantum physics, they encountered a puzzle. If they imagined all particles to be massless, then each variable in the equations established a perfectly symmetric pattern. What’s more, this balance was not simply numerically exquisite. It clarified patterns obvious in the experimental data. But—and here’s the puzzle—physicists did acknowledge that the particles had mass, and when they modified the equations to represent this fact, the mathematical concordance was ruined. The equations got intricate and more terrible still, conflicting.
What to do now? That’s when Higgs put forth his theory. He suggested keeping the equations unblemished and symmetric, as if in a peculiar situation, and not forcing the particles’ masses to accept the beautiful equations. He envisioned that all of the space is uniformly filled with an invisible substance that exerts a drag force on particles when they accelerate through it, the Higgs Field.
According to Higgs if you push on a fundamental particle to increase its speed, you would feel this drag force as a resistance. Justifiably, you would consider the resistance as the particle’s mass. For a mental toehold, if you push on the ping-pong ball submerged in water, it will feel much more massive than it does outside of water. Its interaction with the watery environment endows it with mass. So is the case with particles submerged in the Higgs field. The more a particle interacts with this field, the heavier it is whereas particles that do not interact with it are left with no mass at all. When physicists examined the idea, they concluded that this was a stroke of genius – one that enabled them to have the cake and eat it too. In Higgs’ scheme, the fundamental equations can retain their pristine form because the tedious work of providing the particles’ masses is delegated to the environment.
The Higgs boson is the most evident manifestation of the Higgs field.
By the time, physicists had already developed very close ties between two of the four fundamental forces – the weak force and the electromagnetic force and their unification implied that electricity, magnetism, light, and few kinds of radioactivity are all expressions of a single underlying force known as the electroweak force. The equations of the unified theory correctly described this force and its associated force-carrying particles, namely the photon, and the W and Z bosons. As explained by the Higgs Field, the carriers of the weak force (W and Z bosons) were heavy while the carrier of the electromagnetic force, the photon, had a mass of zero.
Experimental evidence for the Higgs boson was a direct indication for the existence of the Higgs field. Experiments searched for the massive Higgs boson at the highest-energy particle-accelerator colliders and on July 4, 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN announced the detection of Higgs Boson – an interesting signal that was likely of a mass of 125–126 giga-electron volts (billion electron volts) – strong enough to cross the threshold of discovery. The math showed that the idea was right, we are really immersed in an ocean of Higgs field, and Higgs particle was unstable, could disintegrate into other particles in a minuscule fraction of a second.
Why is it important?
First, we’ve since a long time ago realized that there are invisible inhabitants in space. Yet none is permanent, unchanging, or uniformly present throughout the universe. But the Higgs field is fundamentally different for its value is the same on Earth as everywhere else. Thus, the Higgs field is undeniably imprinted on the spatial fabric.
Second, the Higgs particle speaks about a new form of matter, which had been broadly foreseen for a considerable length of time however had never been seen. And unlike any other fundamental particle species it has no spin at all.
At last, and the most extreme significant, the revelation of the Higgs particle is a shocking triumph of mathematics’ capacity to uncover the activities of the universe. It’s a story that has been restated in physics on various occasions, yet each new model excites nonetheless. The Higgs field rose up out of numerical examinations looking for a component to supply particles with mass. Furthermore, by and by the math has come through without a hitch.