Higgs, shmiggs.. who cares?

So, how do I feel about the Higgs discovery? Am I excited, indifferent or even just a little disappointed? Before CERN’s announcement on the 4 July 2012, I had asked myself on many occasions whether I hoped the Higgs would be discovered or not. After all, if there were no such thing as the Higgs field, or Higgs mechanisms that supposedly gave particles their mass, and hence no Higgs Boson (the particle that is no more than a brief condensation of Higgs field energy) then we would need to revise our theories of the subatomic world… and that would be pretty exciting. Well, it seems like that won’t be necessary (for now) because experiments have confirmed what theory predicted all along.

The seminar room at CERN listening to the announcement of the Higgs discovery on 4 July 2012. Image courtesy of CERN

So how important was the discovery of the Higgs? Like all other physicists, I am slowly getting used to the idea that pervading the whole of space there really is an invisible and, until 4 July 2012, undetected mysterious presence known as the Higgs field. It affects the Universe, as far as we know, only at the tiniest scales through the way it allows subatomic particles to move through it. Some, like photons (the particles of light), pass through as though it wasn’t there at all and some, like neutrinos, only feel it very weakly, while others move through it as though it were treacle and so are unable to travel very fast. The way we see this is through these particles having different masses. Thus the heaviest quarks, the Top and Bottom, have their relatively large masses because they interact strongly with the Higgs field, whereas the lightest quarks, the Up and Down (that make up all the stuff we see in the Universe) couple relatively weakly with the field.

The data from CMS, one of the two experiments at the LHC. It shows the famous 'Higgs' bump at 125 GeV. Image courtesy of CERN

So, it is really the Higgs field and the way it interacts with matter that is important, not the Higgs boson. That is simply a very short-lived lump of energy that is the particle manifestation of the field – it doesn’t have a size or a shape. When CERN announced they had discovered the Higgs boson they did not mean they had ‘seen’ one. What they meant was something rather more obscure. Because this particle only lives for a tiny fraction of a second before it decays into something else, it is these products that experimenters were looking for; and billions of these decay products are created in the high-energy collisions of the two proton beams in the LHC. So, how do they know which ones might have been produced by a Higgs particle. Well, what they do is record all the candidate particles that may have been produced by a Higgs boson created in the mêlée and plot the number of such events against their energy. This plot is called a cross section and shows whether, at certain energies, there is a sharp rise in the number of events. This means that there is a certain narrow energy range (corresponding to presence of a Higgs boson) when these decay products are produced in more abundance that at other energies. This manifests itself as a bump in the cross section. The sharper and more defined the bump, the more likely it is that that energy is special. So when physicists talk about confidence levels and sigma values they are referring to the sharpness and clarity of this bump in the cross section. And they are very very confident.

One final point is that the particle physicists at CERN were very careful in their statement to say that although the evidence was overwhelming of the discovery of a new particle, they could not yet be sure that it was the Higgs boson. But I reckon they are just being very cautious for now, and rightly so. But in my view, it if looks like the Higgs, smells like the Higgs and is exactly where they expected to find the Higgs, then it is the Higgs.

This visualization shows the separation between dark matter (blue) and ordinary matter (red) in a collision of two galaxies in the Bullet Cluster. Credit: NASA/CXC/CfA/STScI

So what next? Are we going to have to wait another twenty or so years before the next big discovery – before the next vital missing piece in the jigsaw is found? I hope not and I doubt it very much. The past few decades have been about designing, building and testing the Large Hadron Collider and its giant detectors that are used to capture and record the many billions of subatomic collisions produced inside them. In reality, it has only taken a couple of years to find the Higgs boson since the experiment began in earnest. With the Higgs confirmed, this also gives us confidence and strong hints as to where to look to answer the next big question. And for many, that is to find the particles that are believed to make up dark matter.

We have known for decades that galaxies would simply not hold together were it just for the gravitational pull of all the matter we see in them: the stars, planets, dust and gas. There had to be some other invisible form of matter that contributed the rest of the gravitational glue that stopped the stars from floating away from each other. It is thought that there is much more of this dark matter than all the matter we can see. One strong possibility is that dark matter is made up of a type of particle that has so far eluded detection. And the LHC is perfectly placed to find this particle if it exists. The discovery of the Higgs gives up confidence and points us in the right direction to look for this particle.

I just hope we are surprised. It’s all very well finding the Higgs and confirming that our current theories are on the right tracks, but it would be so much more exciting were we to find something completely unexpected.

Let’s wait and see.

For more information see:

Statement from ATLAS

Statement from CMS

Jon Butterworth on Why Does the Higgs Decay? [Guardian Article]

What would happen if you put your hand in the LHC? [60 Symbols Video]

The ATLAS Boogie (How we really find the Higgs!) [YouTube Video]

About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, author and broadcaster.
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8 Responses to Higgs, shmiggs.. who cares?

  1. Graham Lappin says:

    A question comes to mind – if interaction with the Higgs field gives mass, and gravity is an attraction between masses, then is there a link between the Higgs and gravity and does this have any consequences for the long sought after gravitron? Apologies if this is a naive question but I am a mere biochemist, not a physicist.

  2. Muhammad yasir wattoo says:

    Professor Jim! I strongly believe that theoretical part of understanding of world is more difficult than observation. In presence of a good theoratical framework an obsevation can contribute to futher understanding, but in the absence of a good theoratical work , even a good observation can be misguiding or create confusion.

  3. Muhammad yasir wattoo says:

    Professor Jim! Earlier I sent you a couple of essage regarding the 7 possible alternate universes based on composition of seven sub-atomic particles, i.e electron and six flavors of quarks. I sent those messages without reading this blog of yours, and now I realize that scientists in the experimental and practical field are also moving to the paradigm of relating this world to the other co-existing entities which have a different set of dimensions. The breakthrough now shall come in the theoratical physics in relating the existing observeable world to the existing non-observe able world, specially at the sub-atomic level. The dilema of relationship between quantum physics and the theory of relativity could be solved by studying this universe to other related universes at the sub-atomic level. Anfd this relationship may also be of such an intensity that events in this world effect event there and vice-versa. The example of a fans blades vanishing once they reach a speed of light may not mean their destruction but their transfer to the other worlds or universes, which could be present not only in different dimensions but rather having their own set of dimension and physical (so to say) laws as well as chemical law in which not the electrons but some other particals were responsible for holding atoms together and providing chain for chemical reactions, in which which electrons are found in the nucleus forming entities like protons and neutrons in combination with other sub-atomic particles or flavours quarks. It could also be possible that electron is also a flavour of quark and in this world it revolves around the nucleus , determing this worlds properties and in other world giving some other particles revolves around something likes nucleus and on that particle are based the characteristics and laws of that world or universe.

  4. Muhammad yasir wattoo says:

    I am a Pakistani with English as a second language, thus grammatical errors should be pardoned.

  5. RY Deshpande says:

    I have a book on Amazon, entitled Islam’s Contribution to Science which can be accessed at the following. My request to you is, to review it on your website, as well as on the Kindle. My bio also accompanies the book announcement. On hearing from you I shall send you the word.doc of the book. Let me express my sincere thanks to you in this regard.


    The House of Wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili published by Penguin Press (2011) talks in its preface of “an age in which great geniuses pushed their frontiers of knowledge forward to such an extent that their work shaped civilisations to this day.” Though perhaps “shaped civilisations to this day” is too enthusiastic a statement, this “pushing frontiers of knowledge” essentially belongs to the early Abbasid period of the Islamic glory. “I shall address,” says the author, “many questions that have long intrigued scholars of the history of science. How much science, for instance, did the Arabs actually know? How important were the contributions of Persian culture, Greek philosophy and Indian mathematics? How and why did the scientific scholarship flourish under the patronage of certain rulers? And, possibly most interestingly, why and when did this golden era come to an end?” But one thing is certain: through that golden age human activities in the promotion of human spirit received not only huge support and patronage but also positive applause. “It was this empire’s multicultural and multi-faith tolerance that fostered a real sense of expectancy and optimism.”

    During this multicultural period no conflict appeared between reason and faith, between science and religion though there were brutal conflicts and battles between religions. The sky and the earth were locked in one happy and paired harmonizing union. However, the conflict between religious and scientific thinking and perception was an unfortunate insensitive development of the later days. By the proponents of science it was vehemently asserted that if there are many ways to go to heaven, there is only one as how heaven goes about. Such an abrasive dichotomy inside the Abrahamic religions is well-writ in the pages of tiring history. In the course of time religions became more and more political, became powerful tools of conquest.

    The basic fact that religion, after all, is to reach and hold the values of aspiring nobility in life’s moods and movements, in its activities, started disappearing in the declining susceptibilities of the ages. It got appropriated by the antagonistic forces of the unregenerate vital nature. Unless it is constantly renewed in the greatness of its true spirit it becomes reactionary, becomes a lifeless burden dragging us back to the unresponsive past. There are now inter-religious and intra-religious conflicts, there are inter-disciplinary conflicts and battles, there are cruel ideological differences. In that respect the present-day science seems to be free from such ungainful issues, its approach having a certain degree of universality transcending all ideological, religious, national, racial factors; its empiricism is its solid armour of safety and defence.

    Yet can one say that there is no regional or temporal science although the methods of science could be free of contingent factors? The quality of say the British science was different than the quality of the French or the German science. One was practical or positivist, even commercial, the other intuitive, and yet another philosophical-metaphysical. It is also to be understood that no Muslim life is possible without the Holy Book. In that sense there could not only be the contributions of Islam to science but there could as well be the Islamic science itself. These are some of the aspects we propose to look into in the present brief work. The approach is more general and largely derives its inspiration from the Aurobindonian formulation of Indian thought and understanding. That furthermore expects a liberal development of perceptions in the bright and broad perspectives of changing and unchanging history.

  6. What if there is a “Le Sage mechanism” rather than a “Higgs mechanism” that could explain better all the interactions? Trying to reduce everything to a single particle with well defined energy in order to simplify the math does exactly the contrary. Fatio and Le Sage used the “ultramundane corpuscle” as the “boson” of their theory to deal only with gravity. The only difference is that they really explained their mechanism while the Higgs mechanism is unclear. What if every boson has in fact a “mass” (or rather: “degree of interaction”) and in the total “mass” (energy) we have to include the spin momentum.
    “Bosons” of different energies contribute together to the interactions. Of course it will be more difficult to describe a mathematical model considering particles with a wide range of energies but could be simplified into a “Bose fluid” with different “phases” at different levels of energies and particles could be represented as vortexes of this “Bose fluid”. Then we can use a math similar to that used in fluid mechanics. Is a little difficult to study turbulence but who knows where this could lead! The only thing that makes me to stretch my brain with such a complicated idea is the fact that my mind refuses to accept the “Big Bang” theory and the only thing that lead to such a theory is the incapacity of mainstream theorists to accept that somehow (other than Compton mechanism) photon could lose energy over large distances. Personally I am more prepared to accept “tired light” theories.

  7. Clive Holloway says:

    The phlogiston theory proposed that something was lost by metals when they reacted in air. An unsophisticated idea which was dismissed when it was found that the product was heavier than the original metal. Yet metal do lose something, electrons, responsible for their lustre. So maybe phlogiston was on the right track after all, and the dismissal was equally unsophisticated because it didn’t recognise that another component (oxygen to which the electrons had been shifted), had been added to the mix and the resultant mass.
    The ether was proposed as the medium through which light waves travelled, another unsophisticated idea which was dismissed when it could not be detected by classical interferometry. Yet it now seems we do have something out there, a field though which everything passes with a resultant drag factor which we see as “mass”. So maybe the ether was also on the right track, albeit for the wrong reasons, and it was perhaps unsophisticated to dismiss the idea that there had to be some sort of medium out there.
    Such is the way the human brain strives to grasp at and tackle intangibles.

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