Physicist clarifies Higgs boson in human terms

May 31, 2013 by Linda B. Glaser

Why did the journal Science name the Higgs boson – an elementary particle – last year's most important discovery? And why did it need something as enormous as the Large Hadron Collider, about 27 kilometers in diameter, to find it?

Peter Wittich, associate professor of physics involved in the discovery of the last July, answered a peppering of questions at the Science Cabaret May 28 in Ithaca.

Wittich explained to the packed crowd that the works by smashing beams of together, with the collisions recorded by cameras taking 40 million pictures a second. "We think of ourselves as big data pioneers," said Wittich, describing the analysis necessary to find significant events. "It's the ultimate needle in a haystack. Out of 6 million billion collisions there are maybe 100,000 Higgs events, and we can find maybe 1 percent of them."

Taking the audience on a fast-paced journey through basic particle physics, Wittich outlined a with the : It predicts a symmetry in which all particles have zero mass – which experiments have conclusively disproven. "So you could throw out the model, or you could try to fix it, and that's what we did," said Wittich. "We found a way to keep the symmetry but break it in a subtle way: It's called spontaneous symmetry breaking."

This is what the Higgs field does, Wittich told the crowd. It breaks the symmetry between particles and gives them all masses, interacting with the particles via the Higgs boson.

"The Higgs field permeates space," Wittich said. "Mass is the property that governs how particles interact with the Higgs field. Heavier particles bump into the field more, so they have more mass; lighter interact with the field less, so they have less mass. The photon, a massless particle, goes through without interacting at all."

Not content with a verbal explanation, Wittich created a human illustration. People in the front row formed a staggered line a foot apart and called it a Higgs field. Wittich then played the part of a heavy particle, bumping into the lines as he made his way between them. A small woman, so slight that she could easily walk between the lines without bumping into anyone, portrayed a light particle.

Wittich maintains audience attention through humor: In response to a question he confessed that the Standard Model "doesn't actually know anything about gravity, which is kind of embarrassing because that's the first force we encounter as babies when we fall over."

"He certainly has an engaging way of presenting information," said Ithaca resident Tom Ruscitti. "I'd read about the Large Hadron Collider in the news, but his description of the Higgs boson put it all into perspective."

"Research is important," noted Ithaca resident Neil Oolie. "Bringing it out to the masses – which is us – is part of that. Get kids involved, get kids interested and the next thing you know they're working on their Ph.D.s."

Explore further: Cold Atom Laboratory creates atomic dance

More information: The Ithaca Science Cabaret is a free monthly event organized by local professors, graduate students and members of the Ithaca community, held at Lot 10, 106 S. Cayuga St.

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User comments : 11

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adams050
2.5 / 5 (2) May 31, 2013
Quick! Change "The photo..." in the last sentence of paragraph 6 to "The photon..."
Chromodynamix
1 / 5 (4) Jun 01, 2013
I was expecting a bit more "in human terms", like the relevance in the form of spin offs like enabling fusion power, antimatter, and treating radioactive waste etc.
johanfprins
1.8 / 5 (10) Jun 01, 2013
"So you could throw out the model, or you could try to fix it, and that's what we did,"
So you could throw out Ptolemy's model of the universe, or you could try and fix it, and that is what they did. They invented "epicycles". "Spontaneous symmetry breaking" is the epicycle of "particle physics".

Usually it is said of scientific equipment: "If it works, don't fix it!"

They should state about theoretical models: "If it does not work, don't fix it".
Chromodynamix
1 / 5 (3) Jun 01, 2013
In these days of pseudoscience it's, "If it does not work, phuk it up, so no one else can fix it!"
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (10) Jun 01, 2013
In dense aether model the Higgs field is rather analogy of Brownian noise at the water surface, which manifest itself like the sparse particle field. The particles are all formed with standing waves, corresponding the solitons at the water surface. The Brownian noise adds the nonlinearity, which enables these waves to bounce and interact mutually like the particles. Without Brownian noise the waves would penetrate mutually like the ghosts.
Requiem
2.5 / 5 (10) Jun 01, 2013
I'm so sick of reading about how dense aether model applies to every article on this site.

Who spends their life sitting on a mainstream physics website blabbing about some theory, crackpot or not? What is WRONG with you?

Do you even have any friends? If so, have you ever noticed that they all get that look like "humor the poor mentally challenged guy who I'm hanging out with so he doesn't commit suicide or something" every time you start talking about how the foam on your pint or the way that dart flew through the air confirms dense aether model?

At least I can understand the wierd indian guy and the vacuum mechanics guy, they're just plugging their sites. I even get the "mainstream science gave me PTSD" guy, at least he believes it's personal and egregious. Classic paranoia, complete with intangible malefactor and rare knowledge fantasies. You, however, appear to be nothing more than a fixated proselyte who obsessively comments on phys.org to make the voices stop.

Seek help...
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (7) Jun 01, 2013
Well, this is just the purpose of TOE to remain applicable to as such wide range of phenomena, as possible. The dense aether analogy of water surface is actually very good for explanation of Higgs field concept in layman, yet physically relevant terms, because it deals directly with geometrodynamic nature of mass. The "small women, so slight that she could easily walk between the lines" may serve as a sexually attractive models for someone - but what we could actually deduce from it? BTW your repetitive spamming will be reported without mercy, because I'm surrounded with similar psychopaths all the time and they're not interested about any serious discussion, just about confrontation. The only target of these people is to ridicule and silence me.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (6) Jun 01, 2013
"He certainly has an engaging way of presenting information," said Ithaca resident Tom Ruscitti. "I'd read about the Large Hadron Collider in the news, but his description of the Higgs boson put it all into perspective."
The model of "small model, so slight that she could easily walk between the lines" is so imbecile, it even doesn't explain, what the Higgs boson is - it just makes apparent, that the physicists actually don't understand this concept anyway. If you don't believe me, just try to answer the easy to follow question:

What the Higgs boson is supposed to be in the above analogy? The small women, Witttich in the role of fat particle, or maybe the people in the front row? As you can see, this "analogy" actually doesn't deal with the Higgs boson at all, if you try to think about it. The only purpose of such "explanations" is to make layman people even dumber, so that they cannot ask the relevant questions about meaning and practical purpose of this research.
Noumenon
1.3 / 5 (25) Jun 02, 2013
What, no sock puppets?
ant_oacute_nio354
1 / 5 (5) Jun 03, 2013
THE HIGGS DOESN'T EXIST.
THE MASS IS AN ELECTRIC DIPOLE MOMENT.
KILOGRAM = COULOMB x METER
ubavontuba
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 03, 2013
I'm so sick of reading about how dense aether model applies to every article on this site.
As the poster in question has shown very little propensity to learn, or even interact normally, I suspect it is a spambot. Its inability to answer direct questions such as, "What did you have for breakfast this morning?" or "What color are your shoes?" seem to confirm this hypothesis.

Also, its web presence appears entirely too extensive for an individual to support (you can find similar spambot postings on numerous sites).

Why would someone create such a nuisance? I guess someone thought it would be funny...