I still don’t understand the Higgs boson

A week after physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider announced they had found what they believed to be the long elusive Higgs boson, its essential meaning still eludes me.  That is to be expected of a field as expert and esoteric as physics: e=mc² only ended up as a popular t-shirt slogan in American colleges because most of us are ignorant enough to believe the equation is simple.  The equivalent of e=mc² for the Higgs boson is the moniker ‘the god particle’ — we don’t know what that really means either but it sure sounds consequential — or, less gloriously, that it is “the ‘toilet’ of modern physics because that’s where all the ugly details that allow the marvelous beauty of the physical world are hidden.”

Fortunately, in the last week some great minds have stepped forward to explain it all to us. Today, Lawrence M. Krauss, the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, has an op-ed in the Times that includes the quote about the toilet and offers three reasons why we should care about the discovery:

First, it caps one of the most remarkable intellectual adventures in human history — one that anyone interested in the progress of knowledge should at least be aware of.

Second, it makes even more remarkable the precarious accident that allowed our existence to form from nothing — further proof that the universe of our senses is just the tip of a vast, largely hidden cosmic iceberg.

And finally, the effort to uncover this tiny particle represents the very best of what the process of science can offer to modern civilization.

More to the point, Krauss says, “If anything sounds too good to be true, this is it. The miracle of mass — indeed of our very existence, because if not for the Higgs, there would be no stars, no planets and no people — is possible because of some otherwise hidden background field whose only purpose seems to be to allow the world to look the way it does.” He then explains the Higgs boson in a manner that is straightforward enough to suggest it is comprehensible, but any summary I would attempt is sure to mangle essential details so read it at your leisure.
Also at the Times, the Lede blog attempted to answer the question ‘What in the world is a Higgs boson?‘ by assembling relevant materials, the best of which are this light-hearted (well, for a physicist) top ten list by Kathryn Grim in Symmetry — including the resonant factoid that the UK once held a national competition to find the best explanation of the Higgs boson — and this Nova interview last year with Peter Higgs, who one imagines is now being feeling rather smug:

Watch The Higgs Particle Matters on PBS. See more from NOVA.

The Atlantic weighs in with a somewhat gimmicky ‘sonification’ of the Higgs boson — yes, it has been set to a score and apparently sounds like a Cuban habanera — as well as with this head-scratching explanation that reputedly began in a conversation at a (very boring) 4th of July picnic.  Meanwhile, Robert Wright’s take on it begins:

Let me explain to you what the Higgs boson is.

Just kidding! Nobody can explain to you what the Higgs boson is, because if they try they’ll say things like: The Higgs boson is the particle that imparts mass to the other particles. And if you’re thinking clearly you’ll say: Wait, what does that mean? You mean if the Higgs boson disappeared, then the other particles would exist but wouldn’t have mass? So how could they be particles at all–I mean, how could they be particles in the sense that I think of “particles”?

What that lacks in utility it make up in honesty.  Also at the Atlantic, that damned Alan Taylor, whose In Focus photo galleries are so perpetually irresistible, has gathered a collection of photos of the device that made the discovery possible — prepare to be awed and still confused.

If you are truly desperate, there is this cartoon explanation — amazingly, I still don’t get it, but maybe you will:


The Higgs Boson Explained from PHD Comics on Vimeo.


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