Finally – A Higgs Boson Story Anyone Can Understand

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Einstein famously marveled over the idea that the universe was comprehensible. But on July 4, the universe started to sound weird and unnecessarily complicated. Physicists worldwide were celebrating an elusive thing called the Higgs Boson, which had apparently made a brief appearance.

They kept repeating that it was important because it gives matter mass, but they didn’t say how such an important job can be done by a particle that needs an $8 billion device to coax it into existence for less than a nanosecond before it returns to oblivion.

The news sounded more like the twisted logic of credit default swaps than the rational progression of science. But now that the physicists have had time to catch up on their sleep and science reporters have recovered from their 4th of July hangovers, a coherent and even comprehensible picture is starting to emerge.
And who better to tell the story than Higgs the cat. I’ve decided to ask a few very simple questions to help Higgs spin the tale. (A similar story will appear Monday in the Health and Science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer).

FF:If the Higgs particle is the answer, what was the question?

Higgs: Some scientific endeavors rest on so many layers of questions that it’s possible to lose track of where it all started. At bottom is usually a puzzle that even children can understand.
You can trace the search for the Higgs back 2,400 years. In ancient Athens, philosophers asked whether you could break matter into infinitely small pieces, or whether you would eventually get to a smallest possible piece that could not be divided.
One philosopher, Democritus, wondered whether such indivisible particles could possibly make up everything on heaven and earth. In his vision, the cosmos was just matter and void, and matter was just different combinations of atoms. His was a big, forward-thinking idea.

Democritus got the idea from his teacher Leucippus, according to the book The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb. The idea itself may be as old as human reason, but once Democritus articulated it and gave it a name – atomism – it took on a continuous life, threading through history for more than two millennia….
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Written by physicsgg

July 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Posted in High Energy Physics

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