What the Higgs …?

Event display showing particle tracks from a collision as seen by the CMS experiment

Image source:CERN

The (probable) confirmation of the existence of the “Higgs boson” at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire  i.e. European Council for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, has been all over the news this week. But I reckon most people don’t really know what it is.  Here’s a couple of attempts to explain it in layman’s terms,

one from Jonathon Amos at the BBC using ping pong balls and sugar

another from Don Lincoln, a nuclear physicist from Fermilab in the USA

a slightly more technical explanation by one of the boffins at CERN, with equations written on his tee shirt,

And for some alternative approaches to explaining what it is, see here.

As someone who studied chemistry, my view of particle physics is that it is seriously weird. Things are both particles and not particles, they can be in two places at the same time and it’s impossible to know both where they are and how fast they are moving. Everything is about probabilities, so the uncertainty about whether CERN have actually discovered the darn thing or not is par for the course!

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13 thoughts on “What the Higgs …?

  1. Although I’ve no interest in CERN and Higgs what’sit by coincidence I’m in Geneva right now! Instead of the proposed visit to CERN we did a boat trip on the lake – much more my line.

  2. I found this very helpful Mick. I can’t say that I totally understand it now, but it sort of makes sense. As for the Guardian article, it was hilarious.

    • Thanks Eirene.

      It’s just over 50 years since CP Snow wrote about the gap”two cultures” – art and science. I think that it’s easier for someone with a scientific background to cultivate interest and knowledge of the arts (I’ve tried to do that myself) but I think many people with an Arts background have a view that Science is too difficult. But I agree with Snow that people with both backgrounds should take an interest in both domains. So I think every “intelligent” person ought to be interested in important scientific developments, and that “scientists” should try to explain them in a way that people can understand – at least the general principles and their consequences – without dumbing down. Materials, like these videos, is often available. So I’m glad if my post has helped you to get a better appreciation about what the fuss is about. Whether the cost of the Large Hadron collider is justified, however, is another matter!

      Hope you’re enjoying your stay in Athens

      • I totally agree. The problem lies partly with the education system where children are expected to specialise at such an early age at a time when most of them are not ready for such a choice/decision and unfortunately the dichotomy is seen as ‘natural’ and necessary.It is drummed into us at such an early age that we have to make that decision, that we can be interested in / good at, one or the other, that it is relatively rare for someone to be able to move from one ‘camp’ to the other. Quite often this dichotomy is also seen along gender lines where girls are still discouraged to do science and if they insist, then biology is the route they are encouraged to take

        Athens is unbearable at the moment – we are in the middle of a heatwave, it is difficult to breathe, impossible to do anything, the slightest movement becomes too much and this heat is set to continue for another week….

  3. I agree Eirene. The education system does force children to specialise, and the development of “specialist” schools reinforces this. I consider this to be a bad policy but schools have been sucked in so they can get the extra money from the government. I specialised in sciences at 14 years old, although I always maintained an interest in history, and also “current affairs” as I became politically active in my late teens, and I was always an avid reader of fact and fiction. However I only became interested in the visual and performing arts when I was in my late 20’s.

    Being in (very) rainy England at the moment I feel very jealous of your sunshine, but I’d soon find it oppressive if it was as hot as in Greece. Pity we can’t get a happy median across Europe!

    • I enjoyed the arts and sciences equally when I was at primary school and was good at both. I remember being particularly good at maths in Year 5. My father, who loved all things German, decided I was to attend the German High School for my secondary education where the arts subjects were taught in Greek and maths and science in German. German was my third language so you can imagine what happened: concepts that were difficult to grasp were impossible in a foreign language so my future was decided for me. Who knows what I would have chosen to do had I gone to an ordinary school.

      That was the time of my political awakening as well, and an understanding of WWII, of the concentration camps, so I was not positibely inclined towards Germany. Coupled with this, was the racism of the German kids towards us Greek kids, so you can imagine, it was not a great time.

      On the same topic, but a different vein, I remember one of the most brilliant students I taught A Level English. His essays were inspired and he spent all his spare time writing stories set in an imaginary world he had created – a bit like what the Brontes did when they were children. Needless to say he wanted to read English at University. His parents, insisted he do engineering because this is what would fetch good money, and coming from a strict Asian family he had no choice. In his second year of A Levels he had a breakdown as the pressure was too much. He did go on to do engineering but I hope that he has continued with his interest in literature.

      • What I really wanted to ask before indulging in this long monologue above, was about your political involvement in your teens.

  4. Well, I became interested in politics when I was about 14 or 15, joining the Labour Party as a Young Socialist when I was 17 and was very active politically until my late 20′s. I became involved in a Marxist tendency that, for a while, became fairly influential before being purged. I’d have probably been expelled if I hadn’t already become disillusioned and quit after the Miners’ strike and the debacle that was Liverpool Council in the mid 80′s..

    LLoyd George is supposed to have said “A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.” Well I had a heart in my youth and according to this quote I don’t have a head because although my views have changed in may ways I’d still consider myself to be an armchair Marxist. But I’m in the political wilderness as I have no faith in the Labour Party, which no longer makes any pretence to be a Socialist party, while the alternative Left continues to consist of tiny groupings who just want to argue with each other (nothing new there!). So I watch and listen to the news, read the Guardian, New Statesman and LRB and alternate between fuming and feeing despondent.

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