Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Hadron, Hamlet and the Higgs boson

Physics must be fun, and particle physics even funner. My invention of a new word there is by way of being a nod to one of the things physicists seem to have most fun with – naming things. The language of physics is quirky, colourful and often poetic. What other branch of science would have given names like Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Top and Bottom to six tiny little bitty things (types of quark) which have never been studied because they are incapable of being seen – incapable, in fact, of existing on their own, per se, as it were. We just know by inference that they're there, and we know that with leptons and bosons they make up, well, everything there is in this universe.

Today, the physicists were really having fun, because they announced to the scientific community, and the rest of the world, that they were 'tantalisingly close' to proving the existence of the Holy Grail of physics, the Higgs boson. The existence of the Higgs boson was posited in 1964 by three groups of physicists working independently of one another – Peter Biggs was simply the lucky one whose name was borrowed at the time.

As Eddie Cassie used to say, I don't know anything about anything, but my understanding is that the Higgs boson is important because it is thought to form (I'm struggling here) a field . . . lets just say it's the thing through which those building blocks of matter, the quarks, bosons and leptons, must pass in order to acquire mass. Without mass, the little fellows would go here, there and everywhere without actually being anything at all – they would exist, but they wouldn't, on their own, have any mass and therefore couldn't, on their own, add up to anything meaningful like, say, you and me. If the Higgs boson is proven, it will be the final piece in the jigsaw of the Standard Model of Particle Physics – the explanation of matter.

Announcements in physics don't get much bigger (or presumably funner), so it was fitting that Rolf-Dieter Neuer, director-general of Cern, who operate the Hadron Collider which made the 'tantalising glimpse' possible, should introduce a little drama by invoking the greatest wordsmith of them all when he addressed his peers:

'We still need many more collisions next year to get a definite answer on the Shakespeare question on the Higgs: "To be or not to be . . ." '


I've posted about this before (here), but if you want to know more about how quarks, leptons, bosons, mesons, hadrons and baryons fit into the scheme of things, you might enjoy this:-

'Strange Charm' by Vlogbrothers
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