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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Higgs: What a boson!

 
September 19th, 2013 by Peggy Aycinena

Mentor Graphics has thrilled once again. This past Monday, they hosted one of their periodic Silicon Valley dinners for customers, press and analysts where they include a physicist on the menu along with a gourmet meal and lots of fine reds and whites. The physicist de jour on September 16th was Cal Tech celeb Sean Carroll, author of the best selling book, The Particle at the End of the Universe.

An excellent speaker, gifted and glib, Carroll walked his audience of 75+ through stuff they once knew but had forgotten, or never knew at all – the history of the science of particle physics, the evolution of field theory, and the importance of Geneva-based CERN and its still-wet-behind-the-ears Large Hadron Collider [LHC], which last year on July 4th validated its $9 billion+ price tag by smashing things around a bit and creating the first observable Higgs boson.

Per Carroll, particle physics was initiated 2500 years ago by Greek philosopher Democritus, who coined the word atom to represent the fundamental particle in matter. By the 1930’s, the model was expanded to include 3 distinct particles – electrons, neutrons and protons – and 3 distinct forces – nuclear, gravitational, and electromagnetic.

By the 1980’s, the model was further refined as 4 particles – quarks with spins up and down, electrons and neutrinos – and 4 forces – strong, weak, gravitational and EM, the strong force interaction being all about gluons and the weak force interaction bragging on its W and Z bosons.

Today, however, the Standard Model has evolved even further. Forces are actually fields and there are lots of those everywhere. If you disrupt a field, the discontinuity is perceived as a particle – a boson, for instance – but they’re not really particles, we just ‘see’ them that way.

In fact, upon further examination there are no particles, just locally disturbed fields which pass themselves off as particles if you’re not backing up far enough to see the big picture.

There’s more. Of all the fields in all the gin joints in all the universe, only the Higgs field is non-zero even when lazing around in empty space. This causes the Higgs boson created in 2012 by perturbing the Higgs field at CERN’s LHC to be especially favored by physicists and late-night talk show hosts, who like to call it the god particle (echoing Fermilab’s Leon Lederman) to liven up their nattering.

Carroll assured us, however, that the god-particle moniker is useless and perhaps even a marketing ploy gone badly awry.

Carroll also assured us that although fields completely fill the universe, the empty space upon which the resting non-zero-ness of the Higgs field hangs its notoriety is indeed empty. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the math because the proof that emptiness exists is right in there, big as life.

To back up his claim, Carroll included the current particle physics uber-equation in his slides and dared anyone to disprove its validity. Of course, at that particular moment such a challenge was a tad difficult to meet given the aforementioned gourmet meal, reds and whites, so the audience appeared to cede the point to the speaker.

However, there were skeptics among the imbibers and small knots of like-minded nay-sayers were seen muttering after the applause abut physicists wanting it both ways – they want their empty space and their ubiquitous fields, too. A little too much like that have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too conundrum for some.

Okay, final factoids from Sean Carroll’s lively talk:

Peter Higgs (University of Edinburgh) was at CERN last year when his namesake ‘particle’ was announced. However, he’s not the only guy associated with the theories behind it all. There’s also Tim Kibble (Imperial College London), Gerald Guralnik (Brown), François Englert & Robert Brout (University of Brussels), and Carl Hagen (University of Rochester).

Prof. Carroll opined that the Higgs boson got its name from the fact that the alternatives – Guralnik boson, Englert/Brout boson, Hagen boson, or Kibble boson [Kibble bit?] – were all simply too difficult or too amusing for common usage.

Hence Higgs boson is the name and what a boson it is!

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Additional learning …

* Sean Carroll has a lively website.

* ThinkQuest can teach you more about particles.

* Particle Adventures can teach you more about the Standard Model.

* Wikipedia can teach you that Peter Higgs is not trying to steal the limelight …

“The Higgs mechanism is also called the Brout–Englert–Higgs mechanism, Englert–Brout–Higgs–Guralnik–Hagen–Kibble mechanism, Anderson–Higgs mechanism, Higgs–Kibble mechanism by Abdus Salam and ABEGHHK’tH mechanism [for Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble and ‘t Hooft] by Peter Higgs himself.”

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