Looking Beyond the Garden: The Higgs Boson

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on May 13, 2013

This is the third in a series of articles looking beyond my garden to see nature's bigger picture. In the first article, "Looking Beyond the Garden: A Convinced Gardener Considers Climate Change," I focused on the planet Earth and one of the ways in which its atmosphere is affected by what goes on here. In the second article I ventured beyond our atmosphere into outer space to consider some of the fantastic discoveries made by modern physics. In the current article I will consider the Higgs boson and the significance of its discovery.

CMS Higgs-event.jpg
Simulated Large Hadron Collider particle detector data depicting a Higgs boson produced by colliding protons

arlier this year there was great jubilation in the world of particle physics—and in the field of physics in general—when the existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed as a result of experiments conducted in the CERN Large Hadron Collider.  More about the Collider below.

So what is the Higgs boson?  A boson is an elementary particle associated with those forces of the standard model in physics that I mentioned in my second article: electromagnetic force, strong force, and weak force. (Standard model is the name given to a theory that attempts to identify and explain the fundamental particles that make the Universe what it is.) 

The confirmation of the existence of the boson called Higgs had been elusive for decades, because it is extremely unstable, morphing into other particles almost immediately after its formation.  Its existence is important because it is the final particle of the standard model to be empirically confirmed and because it is thought to be fundamental to the formation of mass in the Universe.  Its discovery also brings us closer to the moment of the Big Bang.  In fact, there is a possibility that a Higgs boson caused the Big Bang.

And why is this boson called Higgs?  It's named after Peter Higgs, who, along with  five other physicists, proposed the existence of such a particle in 1964.  Higgs is a
British theoretical physicist and emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh.

Higgs, Peter (1929)3.jpg

Peter Higgs, born May 29, 1929


It has also been called "the God particle."  This unfortunate nickname was dreamed up by the news media to grab readers' attention, much to the dismay of many physicists and religious leaders.  Admittedly, to describe the Higgs boson properly requires a lot of scientific detail that would be too technical for the average reader or viewer, including yours truly. But to call this boson the God particle is misleading and sensationalistic.

The CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

CERN is an acronym for the French Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, in English the European Organization for Nuclear Research.  It was founded in 1952 with a mandate to establish a world-class fundamental physics research effort in Europe.  The stellar achievement of this effort has been the design and construction of the LHC.

Here is how CERN describes the Collider:

"The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It first started up on 10 September 2008, and remains the latest addition to CERN’s accelerator complex. The LHC consists of a 27-kilometre [16.8 miles] ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way.

Inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams travel at close to the speed of light before they are made to collide. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate beam pipes – two tubes kept at ultrahigh vacuum. They are guided around the accelerator ring by a strong magnetic field maintained by superconducting electromagnets. The electromagnets are built from coils of special electric cable that operates in a superconducting state, efficiently conducting electricity without resistance or loss of energy. This requires chilling the magnets to ‑271.3°C [-456.25°F] – a temperature colder than outer space. For this reason, much of the accelerator is connected to a distribution system of liquid helium, which cools the magnets. . .

Thousands of magnets of different varieties and sizes are used to direct the beams around the accelerator. These include 1232 dipole magnets 15 metres [about 50 feet] in length which bend the beams, and 392 quadrupole magnets, each 5–7 metres [16.5-21 feet] long, which focus the beams. Just prior to collision, another type of magnet is used to "squeeze" the particles closer together to increase the chances of collisions. The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometres [6 miles] apart with such precision that they meet halfway!

All the controls for the accelerator, its services and technical infrastructure are housed under one roof at the CERN Control Centre. From here, the beams inside the LHC are made to collide at four locations around the accelerator ring, corresponding to the positions of four particle detectors." (http://home.web.cern.ch/)

CERN LHC Tunnel1.jpg

LHC interior

More collider attributes:

  • The LHC is the world's largest machine and examines the Universe's smallest particles.
  • The accelerator tubes and collision chambers are 100 meters (328 feet) underground and are situated beneath the border between France and Switzerland.
  • The ultrahigh vacuum mentioned above is necessary to avoid introducing other particles the protons could collide with before they reach the proper collision points. A single stray molecule of gas, for example, could cause an experiment to fail.
  • When reaching top speed, the particle beams make 11,245 trips around the 16.5 mile LHC every second.
  • There are six areas along the LHC circumference, known as detectors, where researchers can collect data.
  • The detection of a Higgs boson is a rare event, happening only once in every one trillion proton collisions.

In contrast to the complexity of the machine, the principle behind it is quite simple.  First, two beams of proton particles are fired along two pathways.  One pathway goes clockwise, the other counterclockwise.  Both beams are accelerated to a speed approaching that of light.  Then the beams are directed toward each other and researchers observe what happens in the resulting collision.

So what happens when the proton particles collide?  A proton is a type of hadron (hence the name of the Collider) made up of quarks. When two protons collide at the huge energies generated by the LHC, they break apart into a shower of all kinds of particles, not only into quarks (see illustration at the beginning of this article).  These particles may be the expected ones that usual matter is made of, but some are also ones that only existed right after the Big Bang and only for an infinitesimal instant.  One of those particles is the Higgs boson.  Further study of these collisions is expected to tell us more about what the Universe is made of and how it began. ☼


All images are courtesy of wikipedia.org and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Articles already published in this series:
"Looking Beyond the Garden: A Convinced Gardener Considers Climate Change"
"Looking Beyond the Garden:  How did all those plants come to be?"

What caused the Big Bang and what came before it?  The final article in this series will discuss this interesting and perplexing question.


Related articles:

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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