Scientists from Europe’s CERN research center presented evidence last week for a particle that is likely the Higgs boson,1 the last remaining elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.
Although it has been nicknamed the “God particle,” it is widely agreed that the name is more for publicity than accuracy, and many physicists do not like it.2
In order to understand the importance of the Higgs boson, it is necessary to review some modern physics.
Quantum mechanics is a very successful theory that describes the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, and quantum field theory is an extension of quantum mechanics. A field is a quantity that fills space and has a value at each point in space. A temperature field, for instance, might describe how the temperature in a room varies from point to point (this would be an example of what is known as a scalar field). The familiar electric field surrounding a charged object is an example of a vector field.
There is a tendency to intuitively think of particles as being like little round marbles. In modern physics, however, the reality is more complicated. Quantum field theory views the fields as being fundamental; particles may be thought of (with some caveats) as “ripples” in the fields.3
One of these fields is a scalar field called the Higgs field. The Higgs field is thought to give particles mass via their interaction with this field. Particles that interact strongly with the Higgs field have more mass, and vice versa. A Higgs particle can be thought of as the smallest possible “ripple” in the Higgs field.4….
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