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The Higgs Boson

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 6, 2012 09:21 AM

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Thank goodness for this fantastic video from Jorge Cham of Ph.D. Comics and CERN physicist Daniel Whiteson. It does a great job explaining (a) what exactly the Higgs Boson is and (b) how it fits into the larger quest to understand the fundamental building blocks of matter.

If you're like me, the next question you want answered, after "What is the Higgs boson?", is "What is the Higgs field?" This 2005 article from Scientific American does an excellent job of explaining it. Here's the central mystery physicists are trying to solve:

Most people think they know what mass is, but they understand only part of the story. For instance, an elephant is clearly bulkier and weighs more than an ant. Even in the absence of gravity, the elephant would have greater mass--it would be harder to push and set in motion. Obviously the elephant is more massive because it is made of many more atoms than the ant is, but what determines the masses of the individual atoms? What about the elementary particles that make up the atoms--what determines their masses? Indeed, why do they even have mass?

Now, the obvious next question is: Why do different particles interact with the Higgs field in different ways and to different degrees, via the newly-discovered Higgs boson? That is still an open question, which string theory addresses to some extent. Here is an excellent montage of physicists explaining the Higgs boson and Higgs field in their own words. They address some of the larger, more cosmological and metaphysical questions you might have:

Most YouTube viewers seem to have enjoyed that video, as I did -- but not user itzmarko1, who points out: "Even with a discovery like this, although it gives us understanding; it still does not give life reason or purpose. So in essence it is still pointless in terms of its ability to justify the continuation of sentient life here on earth or anywhere in the universe." Bummer! Personally, the more I learn about the meaning of the Higgs discovery, the more exciting and profound it feels.

Related: "Hipster Pop Quiz: What is the Higgs Boson?" (My favorite answer: "It sounds like a... band, or something. Like a metal band.")

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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