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Higgs Boson Explained by Cartoon (nasa.gov)
646 points by ColinWright on July 3, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 127 comments

From the video around :30 seconds in, "...this is when surprises might happen. Any day could be the day that changed the world."

I am still looking for an answer as to how the world could be changed by the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. What are some possible outcomes for society? I do not doubt that it will change, and I agree fully with it's value, however, I can't find any specifics in what ways it might change or what new technologies might be created with or without the Higgs Boson.

Also, at a 9 Billion USD price tag, how were our governments convinced? There must be something beyond scientific intellectual curiosity. Those of us with this curiosity may be happy to pay for it, but how were politicians convinced? What value will this provide to the governments of the world who made the decision to purchase this answer.

I'm sure it's not this...

Scientists: "We need 9 Billion to find out if the Higgs Boson particle exists."

Governments: "OK, here is your 9 Billion."

... 15 years later

Scientists: "The answer is yes. The Higgs Boson does exist."

Governments: "Oh, that's really great."

Update: I understand and agree fully with the value of this research. I am asking if there are any specific technologies that are expected to be advanced or if it is just added knowledge that could lead anywhere. I am also wondering how it was explained to politicians who don't have specific interest in science.

Understanding of how things work, so we can bend them to our will.

Better understanding of the standard model will buy us many things, most of which we don't yet realise will be interesting, useful, fun, exciting, and important. Better understanding of the standard model will possibly give us:

* Quantum computers

* Room temperature superconductors

* Substances strong enough to build a space elevator

40 years ago we had no idea how to build 'planes that were bigger, stronger, faster, and more efficient than the ones we had, and yet people did the basic research anyway, just because they thought it might be useful. They found composite structures, and we got the 'planes and other things. The metals used in car engines have improved enormously, in part because of what was seen at the time as being basic research that might not really go anywhere.

But in the end it's basic science, and we don't always know how - or whether - it will repay itself. For every advance that has gained us something there are other efforts that have led nowhere, but we never know in advance which will be which.

    That's the nature of research -- you don't know
        what in hell you're doing. -- 'Doc' Edgerton

    If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be
        called research, would it? -- Albert Einstein
So who knows what will come out of this. The research could give us teleportation, or Star Trek-style replicators, or dirt-cheap solar energy harvesting paints that cars can run on, or electricity storage devices, or plastics that can be made without oil, or entirely new substances, just as plastics once were.

I have no idea how old you are, but I'm fifty, and stuff exists now that didn't when I was in my teens, partly because of people doing basic research.

I understand (somewhat) and agree fully with the value of this research. (Great specifics by the way.) I am hearing from you that we have no idea what we will discover, but it could be anything and likely something really cool.

The question I have is really how it was explained to politicians and decision makers who are not scientific. Was it really, "with this research we could discover anything from teleportation to a better way to make toasters", or was it something more specific?

I currently see our governments doing everything they can to limit discovery and creativity because they don't understand basic science or the Internet. It is interesting and heartening to me that a project like this currently exists and is mostly not questioned.

I don't think the top politicians in each country had to sign off on this. More likely the money was already allocated to scientific research and there were people in charge of deciding how to spend it.

<cynical rant>To the extent that politicians did have to be persuaded, they were probably persuaded by other means than that of elucidating the potential scientific payoffs. They were probably persuaded using political arguments, i.e. how it would play with their voters. Politicians are not, in practice, guardians of a sacred trust. They operate by their own rules and for their own reasons.</cynical rant>

no no no you're coming at this from the wrong angle.

To the politicians, it suffices to say that "It's bigger than what the Americans got".

The importance of CERN for European science and culture as a whole is an interesting subject, but I'd assume it's had very much positive effect.

The timing of the announcement, 4th July, surely suggests this could be what actually transpired.

> I currently see our governments doing everything they can to limit discovery and creativity because they don't understand basic science or the Internet.

The truth is that it's easier for politicians to buy votes with handouts than it is for them to fund research in the hopes that an enlightened public will appreciate them for their foresight. Looks like they're correct... unfortunately.

Government does not fund anything. It redistributes the wealth of the taxpayers. At least attribute the source of the funding to the correct people.

How come you missed something more obvious?

* Controlled Fusion

My guess is that the politicians were sold on the unlimited energy that successful controlled fusion would provide.

As somebody once said: Any problem on Earth can be solved with the careful application of high explosives. The trick is not to be around when they go off.

The benefit of this is we get something that is invaluable, discovery. We discover things that may have no practical application at all, but we discovered it, then someone might come along in 1, 100, 10000 years that has a use for it, but only because it's been discovered.

X-rays, electricity, penicillin we're all discoved with no practical application in mind.

Not even remotely true about penicillin, I'm pretty sure that when Flemming discovered penicillin, since he was a biologist and a pharmacologist he had a pretty good idea of its practical application.

x-rays, maybe, but even electricity im doubtful of. While it may not have been possible then to predict all the uses of electricity, i'm pretty sure someone had the idea of using it's power to, well, power things...

Actually Flemming did not.

He did the research, he published, and the publication sat for 12 years until a couple of other people came along, and tried to build on it by making a practical product out of it.

Also after penicillin was discovered, researchers going back found evidence that other scientists had encountered it, and had failed to see that it had potential.

About electricity, Maxwell (who unified electricity and magnetism in one set of equations) when asked to justify the value of his work famously replied, "To tell you the truth we don't do it because it is useful but because it's amusing." In retelling the story he added, "Would it be any good to ask a mother what practical use her baby is?"

This is a clear demonstration that the scientists studying electricity in the early days did not know what practical utility their work would have. (Though the connection between electricity and magnetism today drives generators and electric motors all over the world, and the prediction of electromagnetic waves lead to the understanding of what light really is, and to the development of the telegraph, radio, television, etc, etc.)

For thousands of years the only application electricity had was that you could rub fur and amber together and then they would attract small objects. The word electricity actually comes from the Greek word for amber.

So your point about Penicillin might be correct, but you are completely wrong about X-rays and electricity.

At a 9 Billion USD price tag, what are our governments buying for us? There must be something beyond scientific intellectual curiosity. Those of us with this curiosity may be happy to pay for it, but how were politicians convinced? What value will this provide to the governments of the world who made the decision to purchase this answer.

False dilemma. When we spend trillions of dollars a year to kill people in the name of stopping violence, 10^-3 of that for curiosity is not something that is rational to attack. Particularly when exploration for curiosity's sake has led to plenty of demonstrably beneficial results.

"Your wasting a lot of money here, so you shouldn't mind wasting a lesser amount here"

Government funding needs to justify itself, not against other uses for the money. The bills have come due and we need to cut out what isn't vital. 9 billion could have paid a lot of health insurance policies.

I'm glad they valued this, but it needs to be valuable based on its own merit.

The actual value of a government program is a meaningless thing because the calculations you do depend entirely upon what you or your cohort personally value.

The American military's V-22 tilt-rotor "Osprey" helicopter program will cost approximately $36B. A cursory web search will show that it is considered a deathtrap that does not meet most of its design objectives.

So is the value of a program to build suicide machines worth four times more than knowing more about how foundational reality is constructed? Blark, argh, divide by zero. If you get paid to build suicide machines, it's a valuable program. If you get paid to fly a suicide machine, it both is and it isn't. If you are watching someone who is flying a suicide machine die, it probably isn't. If you like science more than you like watching people die, no. If you like watching people die more than you like science, yes. On and on and over and over in limitless permutations multiplied by every taxpayer.

All you can say with certainty is that someone or some party in the course of a government process valued that process at some point enough to make it happen.

I would bet "knowing more about how foundational reality is constructed" is probably worth less to a lot of people than say research into the top 10 cause of death by disease.

I'm glad they chose to fund this, but my original point is that no government funding these days should survive unless it can be justified. We cannot keep running deficits.

Your "cursory web search" might want to include actual statistics on accidents particularly compared to the CH-46 it is replacing.

My example was pure hyperbole. :) But I think my point stands: any government program can be justified by some party, deficit or not. Even deficit spending itself is a virtue for some.

There is no test to separate pork from fiber where there is no fundamental accountability. Spending programs exist because spending programs exist.

I figured :), but I love reading about aircraft and hate Wired's reporting on anything involving risk or the military.

At this point, if it doesn't keep the lights on, the trains running, or protect / save lives; it needs to be looked at for cutting.

Are you suggesting that research into the top 10 causes of death isn't a lot more than the $9 billion spent on the equipment needed to discover the Higgs?

The NIH gets $30B/yr[1]. I don't know where the $9B figure for the LHC came from, but I bet it's total cost, over what, 10-15 years?


Nope, not saying that at all, I was saying that an additional $9 billion on the top 10 might have been prioritized higher. Once again, I am glad they funded the LHC, but my thesis is that government spending needs to be cut to the bone until the deficit and unpaid liabilities are dealt with. Much like we cut spending after WWII.

Im not saying that. Im saying if you care about waste, quit attacking minor inefficiencies when instead, there is a giant one right there. I have no problem talking about whether some money spent on science has value, right after we deal with the huge money sink in other places. It's basic triage. Don't waste our time worrying about pocket change when you're burning hundred dollar bills because the smoke is pretty.

The problem with most government budgets is that most of the problems are the pocket change. All the little things need to be cleaned up to get at the bigger issues.

I'm not a mathematician, but I am pretty sure you can go by a rough order of magnitude scale... If you have gross headings that are many orders of magnitude larger than others, your best bet is to look in those large ones for waste first. Scientific research would have to be eliminated tens or hundreds of times over to get to a level of savings that could probably be removed easier from waste in headings like defense and law enforcement and corporate subsidy.

Mathematically, sure. Math isn't the problem in politics, territory is. All the little things add to people's territory and patronage. It also keeps people from making the big cuts. We need a culture change to spend the money responsibly and it will only happen when "it's only a couple of million" is removed from our vocabulary.

As an aside in 2011, Defense and international security assistance is 20% of the budget. Social Security spending was higher than that (731 vs 718 billion). Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP was a bit bigger at $769 billion. The rest of the safety net style programs was $466 billion. $230 billion was spent paying interest on the national debt.

I updated my comment to communicate better what I was asking. I do fully support this kind of research. I am interested in the technological directions and discoveries for society that this research is expected to provide. It seems odd that politicians who don't necessarily have specific interest in theoretical physics are convinced to fund a project of this size and scope without tangible benefits.

It's basic research. Some countries' politicians were convinced that you need basic research to do applied research. It's also a great international collaborative project, where subcontractors from many countries get actual money making contracts to build the required detectors, magnets, etc.

Without quantum mechanics exploration you wouldn’t have a transistor, which means no computer or television. Furthermore you can say goodbye to lasers and all the changes they brought to medical operations-for example all eye surgery today is done using lasers. So while the discovery of the Boson particle per se might not have a direct impact in our lives, the more we understand particle physics as a whole the better machines we will be able to build in the future which will definitely change the way we live.

Basically, we just keep discovering things like this until they flesh out our understanding of a whole bunch of interrelated domains enough to build a warp drive.

I'm serious.

There is no known outcome.

"what are our governments buying for us?": - knowledge - possible future applications

It's that simple. That's always how fundamental research works. How politicians were convinced, I don't know - that's an excellent question.

I am no physicist, but i have been following particle physics as a hobby. And as i understand it, there is this standard model which which describes how particles behave and groups them, and hence like periodic table (extreme simplification) helps predict particles that have not been discovered yet but that can be proved following the standard model and it's calculations. But There needs to be confirmation that standard model is itself correct. One way is to find particles that the model predicts. If they are found then we know that the standard model is in fact correct and the other implications can be that much more "correct". So Higgs boson will not only explain why/how matter has mass and hence makes everything possible but it will also re affirm that standard model is on track, for now.

> One way is to find particles that the model predicts. If they are found then we know that the standard model is in fact correct.

Actually, finding those particles doesn't tell us that the standard model is correct. Finding those particles just tells us that it doesn't have some specific errors.

One difference between science and math is that you can't prove anything "correct" in science.

One difference between science and math is that you can't prove anything "correct" in science.

To be fair, you can only prove something "correct" in math to the extent that it agrees with the underlying axioms. In broader scientific fields, an assertion is just as "correct" if it agrees with the underlying models.

In mathematics, you can challenge the validity of axioms, which is usually a pointless thing to do, or you can point out, as Goedel did, that some assertions will remain unprovable within any given framework of axioms. So the math guys know where they stand, at least.

In many areas of science, the experimental method is becoming less and less useful over time. Particle physicists need to know how well the Standard Model agrees with reality, because so much of their future work will depend on assumptions that can only be tested against the model. (We won't see a bigger-than-LHC facility constructed anytime soon, put it that way, and that was the case even before the recent global financial problems came to light.)

Similarly, the work of climatologists can be, and has been, attacked because it depends on models, and the map is not the territory. As with the Standard Model of particle physics, an assertion can be shown to be unequivocally true or false within the bounds of a given climate model, but not in reality, because we only have one Earth to experiment with. In both climatology and particle physics, the lab door is now locked. The models are all we have to go by, so it's really important that we get them right.

Well, mathematics is somewhat unique in that ultimately, it's purely detached from reality - it's purely conceptual.

When we can use it to model the things we percieve, that's great, but at it's most fundamental level, mathematics is not a natural science (if that's the right term) - it's a human construct - purely abstract.

But to be fair, when we say "prove" in common speech with regards to science, do we really need to say "science can't prove anything?" - every time? Most people get that on forums that discuss such things - "proven" in these things simply mean their theories checked out. We'll never know what the universe really "IS" - we only know what we percieve, directly or indirectly,and what we can predict. It's still turtles, all the way down.

- not literally that it's an absolute truth - that's impossible, as you said, other than in mathematics.

I've had many dreams in which the rules of gravity no longer held, but I've never had a dream in which three things and four other things didn't make a total of seven things.

There's something more absolute and universal about math.

I've had a reality in which 0 (zero) things makes two things ... [particle-antiparticle pairs appearing in quantum fluctuations in vacuo in case that's too terse].

Similarly thousands of things can make up a single thing. [Like bosons in a Bose-Einstein Condensate].

Or in the case in point where you just stick various particles in a pot and pull out some other particles with corresponding energy. For example in beta decay a neutron changes to a proton emitting a W- particle which itself decays to an electron and electron-anti-neutrino (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beta_Negative_Decay.svg).

Ultimately maths is axiomatic, so not universal, and Godel shows that it's not absolute.

Yes, i think over simplification killed it. The existence of higgs will only tell us that the model was not wrong in it's prediction and will hence increase the credibility and chances of success of other predictions. I stand corrected.

"One difference between science and math is that you can't prove anything "correct" in science."

Excellent analogy

You've just discovered the fundamental question about basic research.

I am not a physics researcher, but based on the videos that I have seen and whatever articles I have read, the most fascinating takeaway for me are:

1. That mass is not an intrinsic property of matter; rather it is acquired by the particle's interaction with Higgs field.

2. A massless particle travels at the speed of light.

When controlled, this has the potential to result in super crazy outcomes (super fast transfer of matter and energy etc).

PS: Please correct my interpretation if it looks wrong.

We've reached the point in scientific discoveries where you can't expect an apple falling on a scientist's head to eventually lead to an explanation (I know this story isn't true). The proposed theory is more complex and therefore requires lots of money. You have no idea what this potential discovery could lead to 10, 20, 50, 200 years down the road. And neither does anybody, it could be a steal. How much is the truth worth (or a glimpse at why things happen)?

By the way, what was the common man's response when Newton first explained gravity? Probably, "Things fall, what more do you need to know"

How much is the truth worth (or a glimpse at why things happen)?

If I'm starving? It's not worth more than a meal.

This is actually a pretty shortsighted perspective. The understanding of the mechanism responsible for giving all particles the property of mass will have far reaching consequences for further research and technology in the future.

I'm pretty sure that the invention of much of the communication technologies we have today were not readily predicted in the mid-1800's when Maxwell was developing EM theory.

Coming up with applications of the Higgs Boson can make it easier to discover. If the thing works, that indicates that the theory is correct.

Part of the answer is a conscious decision on the EU level to 'become the best at science'. That sounds awfully vague and usually is an empty promise in politics, but in this case there was broad support for such an effort (plenty of money was available, the USA seemed to be slacking off, CERN had proven its worth etc etc).

Discover magazine hosted a conversation about this very question.


Here is the CERN's “we found the Higgs, what comes next?” press release:


Slightly off topic:

I admire this method of conveying ideas and information (animation). It's a great way to consume these clips.

The RSA has a whole series of 10 minute lectures which they animate on a whiteboard in this style. The illustrations are brilliant.


(search for RSA Animate)

Those are fantastic. This would be a great way to do a budget "about" video for a startup. Get a decent voiceover with a script, then have your designer do one of these videos.

Neat site, thanks for the link. I got all excited thinking they were going to be videos about crypto though... I guess The RSA is different from RSA.

I have a very minor claim to fame in that I appear in the background of one of the RSA animations (at about 6:45 in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJmGrNdJ5Gw - and the nasty words about Perl coming out my mouth are not mine :-)

I still don't get it.

I still don't get how they jumped from "We have this Higgs field" to "and hey, the field is a particle."

Don't worry, don't worry. This one of the most complicated theories in physics (apart from string theory) to grasp intuitively. I'm a physicist and I could try to help you.

Think of an excitation of the field. One of the "axioms" of quantum field theory is that the energy of an excitation is related to the inverse square of the wavelength. Don't ask me why, it's just like that. Think of UV radiation or X-rays, which are just light with a higher frequency and you know those radiation is more damaging to the human body than for example radio waves.

Now, are you familiar with Fourier decomposition?[1] It's the idea that all functions are the sum of a waves (sines and cosines). We do the same thing in quantum field theory, we have our quantum field and we write it as the sum of our elementary wavefunctions, which are called plane waves[2]. When you look at a wave packet[3], you can't really say what its wavelength is. Wavelength is not a local concept, as for example the height of the wave, but the wave differs from place to place, so it's impossible to give it just one wavelength! We don't have that problem with plane waves. Because they're the same all over the universe, they have a clear wavelength and thus a well-defined, unique energy. This concept, an excitation of a field with a well-defined energy (and thus a well-defined mass!) is what particle physicists call "a particle".

When a collision happens in a collider, we're actually preparing two plane waves and pointing them in the same direction. As they collide, the wavefunctions of the various fields become incredibly complex. We humans can only "see" excitations with a well-defined mass, or better yet, our detectors can only detect excitations with a well-defined mass. And thus instead of a complicated field, we see a mess of particles going in different directions and having different masses, energies and speeds.

Does that make it any clearer?

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourier_series [2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plane_wave [3]: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Wave_pack...

This was a very good explanation, thank you. One question: the Standard Model describes a finite number of "fundamental" particles/waveforms, correct? What makes them "fundamental"? Presumably they are orthogonal (or at least span a complete vector space), but there must be some restriction on the (otherwise infinite) domain? (e.g. "waveforms with total energy = 1" and "wavelength is kX where k < 4" or some such.)

Are you under the impression that all particles live in one All-Embracing Majesty? That is not true, although all particles of the same type are excitations of a single field, different types of particles have their own fields. For example, the electron and the tau have two separate fields. The weak interaction makes for some mixing, but that is not really important.

If you're wondering why there's exactly 12 (+ 1 for the Higgs?) fields, I cannot answer that question and it's one of the open questions in current theoretical physics.

I understand that there are different fields. More so my question is, why are there a finite (as opposed to infinite) number of fundamental waveforms for any given field? My intuition is that this is because the domain of "candidate" waveforms is restricted to those which exhibit particle-like behavior (i.e. compatible with a particle physics). I'm not sure if this intuition is correct however.

There are an infinite number of possible waveforms; pretty much any waveform in the electron field is a valid one. What we see as a single electron is simply a "spike" waveform localised in a particular position. There's no reason you couldn't have a more smeared-out waveform that was "an electron somewhere in the universe", though entanglement comes into play at some point.

When we have particular constraints (e.g. known energy) that constrains the space of possible waveforms. E.g. when we talk about there being an electron in an orbital around an atomic nucleus, what we actually mean is there's a waveform. of a particular shape around the nucleus.

Are you asking why we only ever see waveforms corresponding to whole numbers of electrons? That's the "quantum" part of quantum mechanics; certain values are quantized (e.g. electric charged). I don't have a good intuition for why that's so though, except to observe that the time evolution of a system preserves this quantization, so there's no way to ever go from having one electron to having half an electron (for example).

At some point "why" becomes impossible - everything just becomes a set of relationships between things that we can define and predict. The only real answer to "why", from a scientific point of view, is ultimately "because that's how it is"

Most good science comes of asking "why" - if you took "because that's how it is" as the answer to "why did the apple fall" science wouldn't have got as far as it has. Whenever a theory has some seemingly arbitrary property it's worth asking "why"; sometimes the answer is "we don't know yet", but that doesn't mean it's not worth asking the question.

Couldn't agree more - I wasn't thinking about how that might be interpreted when I wrote it..... Absolutely we ask "why" - and look for explanations. I meant nothing with regards to being defeatist and not looking at things - only that, as far as I can see, even though we'll keep going deeper and deeper and discovering more and more, we'll never get to a final answer (other than perhaps getting to a point where we can't research further without blowing up the universe? I read too much sci-fi.

A final answer would be boring..... WHY is a fantastic question - it's just not something pure science can answer with finality, only layers until we get to an unknown.

We chose our basis because it is convenient. It's called a Fock space[1]. You can choose any basis you want, the equations of motion derived from the Lagrangian will tell you how any wavefunction evolves, independently from your choice of basis.

The number of waveforms isn't finite by the way. There's a fundamental waveform for every momentum (which can be any real number) and for every number of particles (which must be a positive integer).

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fock_space

Yes, I realized by "finite number of waveforms" I actually meant "finite number of waveform-generating functions parameterized over momentum/energy and number of particles". But I think you and lmm have answered my question, thanks!

Fundamental particles enter the Standard Model through the Lagrangian. Each particle is given its own field in the action: [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Model#Construction_of_...].

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "orthogonal" as the mathematics involved is not simply linear algebra.

kmm stated that "we have our quantum field and we write it as the sum of our elementary wavefunctions", so I assumed that any quantum field can be described by a superposition of the elementary wavefunctions convolved with some sort of particle-position function P(p, x) (where, roughly, P(p, x) = E if particle p exists at position x with energy E, otherwise P(p, x) = 0). Am I wrong to assume this?

Edit: from what I can understand about the formation of the Standard Model from the Lagrangian, the domain restriction which makes the elementary wavefunctions elementary is wavefunctions which evolve over time (according to EM theory) such that when viewed as particles, their motion is compatible with QM (or relativity?), and that there are only a finite number of distinct wavefunctions which are needed to span this space. Is this roughly correct?

I'm still not clear on the value of finding the Higgs Boson or why its so exciting -- If I understand correctly, not finding it (or disproving it exists? Is that logically possible?) will force us to rewrite certain aspects of physics. But what effect will finding it have to either theoretical or applied science?

If we find no Higgs boson right now, there's still other options: multiple Higgs bosons, composite Higgs bosons, etc. We're only looking for the most simple configuration right now. If does do not exists (and it will take many many years to prove that), we're having a bit of a problem as this invalidates the central tenet of quantum field theory.

All of quantum field theory is based on the principle of local gauge symmetry. This means that by demanding the field be invariant under the transformations of a certain mathematical framework, the interactions appear automatically (don't worry if you don't understand that, that would take more than one HN post). This is all very beautiful but the problem is that this only works for massless fields. The Higgs mechanism solves this by instead of postulating mass as an intrinsic property of a field, it supplies mass as an extrinsic property.

Technically speaking all fields are still massless, yet due to their interaction with the Higgs field, they behave as if they had mass! This is good, because we can keep our precious gauge symmetries and particles can have mass which is a very basic experimental fact. (I'm ignoring some important parts here, like symmetry breaking, but this post is already getting too long).

If no Higgs is found, either some brilliant mind must find another solution to preserve the principle of local gauge symmetries, or we must leave field theories behind and look for another solution.

I personally hope no Higgs is found, as Higgsless theories look more appealing to me. Obviously, Nature shouldn't conform to my personal aesthetic views, so if proof for Higgs is found, I will have to accept that.

More or less the happy sense of being proved right. Since the Higgs is well-modeled and well-understood in theory, other than the value of its mass, we already have a rudimentary scientific understanding of what it does and how it works. But it's critically important that these theories, like the Standard Model that predicts the Higgs, be experimentally confirmed--though you are right that it would be far more earthshaking if it didn't appear.

It's just a model - finding higgs will add validity to that model as a useful tool. not finding it - invalidating that theory puts us back to the drawing board and/or focuses people on other theories. It's not the end or beginning of anything, just another step.

I want my time travel and anti-gravity and FTL drive, at consumer prices. I want to see dinosaurs and travel around the universe in the blink of an eye. Keep working science people.

This all makes sense to an extent, but I'm still having a hard time grasping what is field... a field of what? I get that particles are basically excited field manifesting a value, a particle... but what constitutes a field?

Yes, somewhat. Thank you very much.

I've enjoyed pondering this stuff since the 70s when I was a child. How much I've 'gotten' it has varied over the years, but it's never been very deep.

Your description, I think, deepened my understanding a good bit.

The links don't lead anywhere.

edit: Web archive to the rescue. Thank you.

Quantum theory is based on the concept of wave-particle duality. Think of the ocean. The water as a whole is pretty wave-y and non-localized (i.e. it's not in one place). But the crests of the waves (the "excitations") can be thought of as particles because they're localized fairly well.

So really all a Higgs boson is, is an excitation of the Higgs field.

This is called Quantum Field Theory. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_field_theory.

wave-particle duality. All fields have an associated particle: e.g em field - the photon.

o....k. So, there is one Higgs field in the world which belongs to one Higgs Bosson, and there are no more Higgs bossons in the world?

Or does it mean that there are more Higgs fields in the world (and, thus, every particle can have a different mass depending on in which field it is) and there are therefore more Higgs bossons?

There is a single Higgs field. But the Higgs field can be excited in many different places! Same for anything else, like an electron - that's why we say that two electrons are indistinguishable from each other. Fundamentally, they're made of the same "stuff": the electron field that permeates the universe.

Particles get mass by "coupling" to the Higgs field. I.e. the excitations of the electron fields - electrons - interact with the excitations of the Higgs field - Higgs bosons. This, through a complicated process described by quantum field theory (that I don't admit to fully understand), gives the particle what we call mass. Different particles couple to the Higgs with different strengths, yielding various particle masses. The Higgs even couples to itself (rather incestuously), which is why it has mass!

I watched it here some months ago:


Depressingly this cartoon is more complex than almost all of the BBC science output.

Broadcasters with the BBC's remit need to have science programmes that are far beyond my understanding. Almost everything on the BBC can be followed by a reasonably smart 14 year old.

While I would like advanced science programming, I think the BBC is not the right medium. Particularly, as the material gets sufficiently advanced, it targets a progressively smaller audience. At some point, it is better to have this on the internet than on TV.

It's the same logic as to why there aren't any interesting TV programs about, say, programming languages, but you can find good content on Channel 9 (not really a channel :P) or Google Tech Talks.

I agree with you, until I start comparing the amount of heavy duty arts programming on the BBC.

So, on BBC radio 4 you'll have A day set aside for "Bloom's Day", heavily promoted before hand, with James Joyces' Ulysses newly dramatised and broadcast over five and a half hours, in seven slots from 9:00am to midnight; and the cross-promotional stuff.


This is a considerable amount of time and money on a well known (but little read) book. And when you hear arts items on news programmes no-one stops to patronise the audience[1] yet anything that goes beyond very simple science on news is handled very gently, as if all the audience are idiots. I don't even mind that so much - but it's the lack of any programming at all that goes beyond the curriculum that a 15 year old would study that is problematic. Of course, there are notable exceptions, and I know that it'd be as bad or worse in other countries.

[1] They'll mention names of artists but not bother explaining any context; you're just expected to know that this person is a scupltor or has won some award or whatever; and you're expected to be aware of some of the main themes in their work.

Hmm, that's a fair point. And I have seen some programs about art history from the BBC that are probably rather advanced.

Perhaps it's a fundamental difference in the two fields? For something like Renaissance art, you can get away with not knowing too much about other sorts of art; on the other hand, for any sort of even moderately serious physics, not only do you need a good grasp of related physics but you also need a strong grasp of relatively advanced mathematics.

Also, thinking about it, it seems that CS is even more underrepresented than other sciences. At the very least, you see some shows about physics and cosmology and biology, however basic. But I've never seen even a painfully basic show about CS. There are shows about robotics, but more from an engineering standpoint than a CS standpoint. Math also seems rarer than the sciences, but I recall some math shows.

Of course, I watch any sort of TV very rarely, so I have a small sample with a distinct selection bias (namely, I mostly watch what other people in my family are interested in). This bias trivially explains the disproportionate amount of art history (my mother is an art teacher) but does not explain the complete dearth of CS.

Can someone explain or point to sources where the implications of finding/not finding the Higgs Boson are clearly quantified?

Or is it that they are not sure what they would do with it when they find it.

Further, how would this discovery affect the modern day/upcoming tech?

Current theory predicts that Higgs boson exists. If it is found, the theory is deemed 'correct' (that is, reinforced, not disproved). Then we're a step closer tho the 'general theory of everything'.

If Higgs boson is clearly not found where the theory predict it, then the theory is deficient and has to be seriously rethought or thrown away altogether! It would be exciting time of uncertainty, crazy ideas, and new and interesting stuff to try (like it was with quantum mechanics). Or maybe not — the new and interesting effects may lie far away from the range of masses and energies of daily life (e.g. we don't usually directly see any effects of general relativity).

Actually, if the existence of the Higgs boson exists and it is right where we expected it, we are zero steps closer to a theory of everything. To get closer we really need to find something unexpected. Finding something we expected merely further confirms the Standard Model and gives us nothing to work with, even as we know something must be wrong with it. We need clues about how it is wrong, not more confirmation it is correct.

It's not as simple as that. Confirming something will make it more attractive to build on and extend. And it will save time that would be spent looking for fundamentally different theories.

It seems as if a Higgs confirmation announcement is going to happen in about 12 hours [1]. A video was briefly up on the CERN site, before disappearing behind a password. Apparently it is part of preparations for an announcement at the International Conference on High Energy Physics, which started today in Melbourne, Australia.

[1] http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/weve-observed-a-ne...

Found via midko's comment here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4193517

If this is still too advanced for you, and you need to brush up on the atom, proton, neutron, and electron, this video of Venus Flytrap explaining the concept in 2 minutes might be a good place to start. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhbqIJZ8wCM

So if I've got this right, mass shouldn't be thought of as the "bulk" of a thing, it's simply thought of as a charge within that thing. So a photon is a particle of substance that contains no mass charge on it, despite the fact that it has some amount of volume?

"Mass", as referred to by physicists is what may be known to others as "rest mass" or "invariant mass". An electron and a positron both have rest-mass. (Think of it as a fundamental property, like charge.) When they collide, the result is two photons that no longer have rest-mass.

It is important to note that gravity affects energy (mass-energy). This is why a compressed spring weighs more than the same spring uncompressed. A spinning ball weighs more than the same ball when it is stationary because there is more energy.

It's an important but subtle distinction that even a lot of physics professors don't quite grasp. Matt Strassler has some very good explanations of it on his page.

Great comment.

I want to hijack it and add....

Couple of points along the same lines that I always like to explain to people.

The familiar E=mc^2 we all know - people like to say that means that the energy in a system is equal to the mass times the speed of light (squared) - if we convert between the two. Which is true..... but it's also saying something else. In this formula, energy is measured in joules, and mass in kilogams - the speed of light in meters per second. Importantly, notice the c^2 is a constant - it's there for unit conversion. What we really have is a statement that energy=mass. Energy and Mass are the same thing.

In the same line - there's no such thing as "pure energy" (if I'm wrong, someone educate me, I'm all ears) - people have a hard time with this. Energy is a property of a system that can be calculated. "pure energy" doesn't exist. Radiation is not what we mean by "energy" (though obviously it's got energy) - energy is a property that we can calculate and work with, and a rather important one at that.... but it's not a "thing" or "stuff" or "non-stuff" that moves around... it's a property of a system that can be calculated.

Yep. Energy is one of the more difficult things to explain, because it's really more of a mathematical property that results from a conservation law about symmetric transformations (Noether's theorem).

Luboš Motl has a great explanation here: http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/3014/what-is-ener...

Feynman's explanation is pretty amazing as well. I can't find the one where he gives an analogy to blocks (or something) but here is one definition he gives: http://www.phy.davidson.edu/fachome/swp/courses/PHY110/Feynm...

The comments by others as a response are correct in that elementary particles are dimensionless.

One interesting point to add though is that only integer spin particles (the force carrying bosons) can share quantum states, which means they can occupy the same point in space.

Another way to say that is to say the opposite, i.e. that half-integer spin particles (the fermions, which includes quarks that make protons and neutrons as well as leptons like the electron) cannot occupy the same quantum state as each other, which is manifest by them obeying the pauli exclusion principle.

So if you were to take two photons they can literally occupy the same point versus two electrons which cannot (with some exceptions noted below). They are both point particles and technically have no volume, but there is this extra rule about quantum states that prevent two electrons from sitting in precisely the same place if they share all other quantum characteristics.

Since this rule applies only if those electrons share all other quantum states, that means that if two electrons have opposite spins, they can occupy the same point in space. The first valence shell in a atom is the lowest state that an electron can have in a stable orbit (think of it as a standing wave that exactly lines up in a circle). There is 'room' for only one electron when you view the electron as a wave, but that shell can hold 2 electrons because there can be one of each spin type.

Anyway kind of long winded, but I think the exclusion principle is at the heart of what makes us intuitively think about the electron as having volume in space and a photon as not.

All this stuff is really really cool, but you can tell why physicists have that itchy sensation that there is some deeper explanation that is underneath all these rules.

Elementary particles have no volume! (think about that one, it's kinda mindblowing)

They can only have "effective size" that arises due to say, electromagnetism. The electron has an effective radius that is measured by bouncing other charged "test" particles off of it. You don't get an answer of zero only because your test particles are attracted or repelled by the electron.

Mass should be thought of as something intrinsic to a particle, just like charge or spin. There's really no good way to visualize it - it's just something different particles have in different amounts.

Might be totally wrong here - photons have no volume yet can exhibit mass. (I don't fully understand that particular one yet.. need to read more. Whether or not photons have mass is a complex question it seems - or rather, multi-faceted)

Photons can have momentum, which, when doing relativity, blends together with energy into the momentum 4-vector [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-momentum]. Relativity also asserts that energy and mass are related [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy%E2%80%93momentum_relatio...], so you can imagine how we could talk about the "mass" of anything with energy or momentum.

Fun fact: One of the ways physicists are looking for Higgs is by looking for bumps in the "invariant mass" spectrum of LHC events with 2 photons!

Thanks - I'll read up. I've long interpreted E=mc^2 to mean not just that energy and mass are interchangeable, that energy and mass are one and the same. What I can't quite get my head around yet (just need to read up more) is how they figured out something about the rest mass of a photon - something about using superconducting rings or something like that. (Because photons aren't generally at rest, and they don't accelerate, right?)

I'm not a physicist, but volume is still a "charge". It's how much particles repel each other, making the thing bulkier.

Mass is just resistance to acceleration, right?

Classically, yes.

Quantum mechanically, acceleration is a rather ill-defined quantity, so I don't know how to answer the question other than through Ehrenfest's theorem - <F> = m <a> when we're talking <averages> [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehrenfest%27s_theorem]

Sheesh, somehow I at least that that would hold in QM.

What I don’t understand about quantum mechanics is the reason nature had to make things so damn complicated. What was the fundamental problem that led to the solution of quantum entanglement, or the duality of the wave-particle situation.

What do you mean "reason nature had to make things so damn complicated"? Nature has reasons? And even if it did, why does this "reason" have to be simple? Does it even have be something humanly comprehensible or even observable?

Could an ant ever comprehend or even "see" a microwave oven?

Nature is what it is. We may only ever get glimpses. And a bias toward simplicity may be more a function of human limitation than some fundamental truth.

Of course nature has reasons. Natural selection is the prime example.

The reasoning doesn't have to be simple but there must be a pretty good explanation of why it is so complicated. Lets not forget that even Einstein thought that something must be wrong with quantum physics because it doesn't make sense.

Nature is what it is but that doesn't mean that we can't question what's happening and seek answers to every single aspect of life. That's the basis of science.

There's no guarantee that nature is complicated--it's just that current models of nature are complicated. But any sort of model that you can begin to understand without tons of math has to be at least somewhat intuitive.

So what you're asking isn't so much "Why is nature complicated?" as "Why is nature not intuitive?". And the answer to that is simple: nature is not intuitive because intuition is a very pragmatic tool evolved to deal with the macroscopic world you inhabit; it would not make sense for it to be optimized for understanding particle physics!

Also, our understanding is simply not complete; it might turn out that there is some relatively simple underlying system and we are merely describing part of the second or third-order effects so cannot see this underlying pattern.

My gut tells me that the underlying reasons are elegantly simple; it is our imperfect understanding - and a long chain of knock on effects - that leads to complication

Arguably having separate waves and particles would be more complex, since there would be more entities.

Yes but why you need to have a wave function in the first place? Why can't we just have particles with a single state?

Besides the other good replies to your comment, I should remind you not to confuse the model with what it describes. We can describe electrons as a wave and as a particle, but in reality they are neither.

Shy physicists explain dating and relationships in extremely roundabout way.

Awesome video! I had Daniel Whiteson as a Physics professor at UC Irvine last year. My favorite professors ever. Very great at explaining concepts and makes the class fun.

love this! it's like khan academy on steroids. It must have taken a lot of work to create. great way for Jorge Cham to get his name out. I'll be subscribing to PHD Comics

My takeaway from this: CERN's cafeteria beats the shit out of ours! Years ago I had the chance to visit there and didn't, talk about the road not taken.

great cartoon, shame about the cafeteria audio.

I thought it added a nice "at the scene" ambience, as if you were in the cafeteria yourself overhearing a great explanation between two researchers. It gave it a great university feel to it.

The cartoon says "Interestingly, you can't have negative mass, or repulsive gravity." It would be interesting to hear why.

Fantastic animation, but doesn't give any indication as to why it's such an important search!

I has it.


Another particle, another Nobel prize.

So if mass and charge are both just attributes of particles, what is the "charge equivalent" of the Higgs boson? And if there isn't one, then why is it assumed the HB exists? Why cant particles have a innate "mass charge" in the same way they have an "electric charge"?

waste of my fucking time

I'm not sure why you would take time out of coitus, obviously an activity you would enjoy, and watch this instead.

Would you care to explain further?

Made worse by the time you took to type that. Clearly you don't value your time.

And clearly neither do I.......

All I want out of it is an anti-gravity device.

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