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Field Day

July 6, 2012

Rheanna Sand

 

So, the Higgs boson has finally joined the party! But once the dust has settled, the real breakthrough will not be the existence of the particle itself, but confirmation of the Higgs field. The fact that the Higgs field has a non-zero value, that is. Try and wrap your head around THAT.

For me, understanding science always comes down to visualization. Perhaps that's what drove me into the low-paying, high-frustration career of biology - the fact that we can drill down from an organism to organ to cell to organelle to protein to amino acid, and that's as far as we need to go. After that, chemistry and physics take over, and that just happens to be where my visualization ability stops.

The standard model of particle physics helps somewhat - atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons can be broken down into quarks. I get that. But electrons and quarks can't be broken down any further. So what are they made of?

Well, quantum field theory says that elementary particles are simply the lowest energy wave in an energy field. An electromagnetic field has waves, and at the points of slowest oscillation you get photons. Same with the Higgs field - at the lowest energy points you get the Higgs particle, or Higgs boson.

But the field is really the major player here. If the average value of the Higgs field were zero, particles like electrons and quarks would have little or no mass, which would cause all atoms to disintegrate. No universe as we know it. But the Higgs field having a non-zero value gives these little energy blips a bit of mass and momentum, making them heavy enough to keep atoms together.

So, while the Higgs boson is the star of the show right now, the nature of the Higgs field is the real holy grail and will be the focus of LHC experiments for the next few decades and beyond. At least, I'm sure that's what they'll be telling the funding agencies...

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