The God Particle

The Greek philosopher Plato is well known for his allegories and metaphors. Of particular interest is his Allegory of the Cave, which appeared in The Republic, written around 380BCE. In it, Plato describes a group of prisoners which are chained to a wall within a cave, and have been all of their lives. They have no direct interaction with the world outside of the cave. They only know of the world via shadows that are cast on the wall opposite of them.  For the prisoners, the shadows are their reality.  Though you and I know the shadows are only a very low-resolution representation of that reality.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, drawing by Markus Maurer

Theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner who works out of the University of Texas at Austin, once likened himself to a prisoner in Plato’s cave. We are forever chained to this cave by the limitations in measurements we can make and experiments we can perform. All that we can know are shadows of the reality that exists in the sub-atomic world. We can see the shadowy figures lurking in our math and as wisps of misty vapor trails in our cloud chambers. We attempt to pierce the veil with the power of our imagination and draw nifty looking charts and animations depicting what our mind’s eye thinks it can see. But in the end, we are all trapped in a cave… staring at shadows. Reflections of a reality we can never truly know.

In our last Quantum Mechanics article, we introduced you to the idea of quantum electrodynamics, or to put it more simply — quantum field theory. In this article, we’re going to explore how QED lead to the prediction and eventual confirmation of something known as the Higgs Boson, also known as the God Particle. As usual, we’ll aim to keep things as simple as possible, allowing anyone with a curious mind to know what this God particle talk is all about. Like so many things in the quantum world, it all started with an unexpected outcome…

Giving Mass to the Massless

In the early 1960’s, quantum physicists began to come face-to-face with particles they called massless bosons. They presented quite a problem, as massless particles tended to be associated with long-range forces, such as photons are to electromagnetism. For short-range forces within the nucleus of an atom, particles tended to have mass. And these massless bosons kept popping up in theory… they were completely out of place. So the hunt was on to figure out how to give these massless particles mass. There were just as many physicists, however, trying to prove that the massless bosons did not exist at all. One of these men was Steven Weinberg.

Steven Weinberg

At this point in time, no one had actually seen a massless boson, mind you. Quantum theory only predicted its existence. And as only quantum theory could have it — as Weinberg and his associate Jeffery Goldstone were locked in an effort to show that massless bosons were not real, they ended up proving that they were indeed, real. And not only were they real, they figured out how to give them mass as well. Problem was Goldstone had to assume that the vacuum of space was filled with this sort of super-field thing that permeated all of space and time. And that the mass was essentially coming from “nothing” due to symmetry breaking within this hypothetical ether-like field. It quickly became known as the Goldstone theorem; the field would later be referred to as the Higgs Field.

The process of how the Higgs field imparts mass on the massless boson is a mathematical monstrosity, so we have modified an analogy used by CERN scientists (when dealing with politicians) to describe how the process works:

Imagine you’re overlooking a hackerspace filled with hackers evenly distributed and talking about the latest [Al Williams] article. The hackers are equivalent to the Higgs field. And then in walks none other than [Brian Benchoff]. [Brian] is equivalent to the massless boson. His presence creates a stir within the hackerspace, and the other hackers begin to gravitate toward him, slowing his progress as he crosses the room. Think of this slowing process as a resistance to acceleration, with the resistance being equivalent to mass.

Gauge Bosons

In the last article, we drove home the point that fields are a part of our reality in the same way that matter is. In fact, if a field exists within a vacuum, it’s not really a true vacuum. The field is occupying that space. Quantum theory dictates that these fields cannot be continuous, but must be quantized. In the last article we also introduced you to the idea of virtual particles. These particles are virtual in that they are not detectable. They exist outside of classical energy conservation laws. They can pop in and out of existence so long as they follow the uncertainty principle. So when you think of QED, think about the quantization of fields, and that the fields can also be thought of as consisting of concentrations of virtual particles. Much in the same way as the electromagnetic field can be thought of as consisting of photons. Another name for these virtual particles is gauge bosons.

The Higgs Field

“God Particle” by Handelsman Cartoon

Above, we talked about how a field can occupy a vacuum. QED says that gauge bosons must occupy that vacuum as well. However, a force field has to be generated by something. An electron will generate an electric field within a vacuum. Remove the electron, and the field is removed as well. And now you have a true vacuum. The Higgs field is special because it is not generated by anything. It is everywhere, constantly, permeating all of space.  Combine that fact with QM, and now you have gauge bosons that fill all of space. Because they are everywhere all of the time, they have been awarded a special name…the Higgs Boson.

As the idea of the Higgs field (and conversely the Higgs Boson) being responsible for giving mass to the massless bosons took root, a revolutionary idea in particle physics began to emerge. Could the Higgs field be responsible for all (rest) mass? Is the mass that we know of nothing more than resistance to acceleration within the Higgs field? Whether the answer be yes or no; there is no doubt why the Higgs Boson is being called “The God Particle”.

The Higgs Boson

Let us harken back to our hackerspace analogy. Everyone is evenly distributed throughout the hackerspace and sharing their version of how they pronounce [Mike Szczys’] last name. The hackers collectively represent the Higgs field, but individually can be thought of as massless gauge bosons. A rumor of [Brian Benchoff’s] arrival starts to spread amongst the crowd, and people begin to cluster around one another to see what the commotion is about. The clustering of people is a form of resistance, even though [Brian] hasn’t arrived yet. This ‘cluster of resistance’ can be thought of as the massive Higgs Boson. As other ‘massless’ people join the cluster to hear the rumor, they acquire mass by virtue of interacting with the resistance formed by the Higgs Boson ‘cluster’.

If (and this is a big if) a Higgs Boson can satisfy the conservation of energy law, it can escape the grip of Heisenberg and cross over into a detectable state. Detecting the God particle will be the subject of our next QED article.


56 thoughts on “The God Particle

      1. Ugh. One of those “I am an atheist and want to debate uneducated Christians to show how smart I am” types. Watching him for science is like watching the Daily Show for news. Speaking to a free thinkers group with clever (stupid) insider quips and jibes. From the Sagan, Nye, Dawkins mold, but smarmier. Plus he gets Maxwell wrong about the speed of light.

        1. 1. What does science have to do with atheism?
          2. He has debated William Lane Craig (Prof., Ph.D., D.Theol.), Denis Lamoureux (Prof., three Ph.Ds) and Stephen C. Meyer (B.S. in physics and earth science). Are those not educated or not scottish enough?

          1. 1. Good question. He takes plenty of shots at religious people when giving a physics lecture. Go figure. Atheists think they have science on their side. Its a conceit. (Without a time machine, evolution is as un-provable as sky god intervention.)
            2. Yes, some have lists of degrees and awards. Battering theologians with QM and statistics and saying you won is, well, boorish and stupid. Here he is with David Berlinsky – full disclosure, I took Philosophy of Science from Berlinsky and he also gave me a lot of his time on General Relativity. His mathematics understanding is superb. The Intelligent Design community likes him because he argues their side, however, he does this because he finds the scientific claims of evolutionists to be weak and faulty. I don’t know if you can find it now, but an early book by Berlinsky is “On Systems Analysis” I think. A heartless attack on bad application of science and math by sociologists, biologists, and others in the soft sciences. Not sure if Berlinsky would be doing this if he wasn’t flogging a book.

          2. Wow. Evolution is one of the most supported scientific facts there is, and the theories of evolution we have are widely supported by a dozen scientific disciplines, without contradiction. We find more evidence of it all the time, and have observed it happening in labs. And you say it’s as unprovable as deities. That’s just… stupid. Sorry, but it truly is mindbogglingly stupid.

          3. “Wow. Evolution is one of the most supported scientific facts there is”

            Not to devolve things, but the *main* problem with people combining religion and science is that they don’t define terms well, and this is a good example – the original poster probably meant *human* evolution, and given the gaps in human evolution and the uniqueness of it (e.g. the evolutionary ‘Great Leap Forward’ was apparently an abrupt change), it’s not an unreasonable criticism to make that *human* evolution – very specifically, the emergence of modern behavior as just random selection – isn’t currently well justified.

            Now, that being said, most non-critical thinking religious types wouldn’t want to even make that argument (even though they don’t realize it) because they’d actually be arguing for *aliens* having created humans, rather than a deity, because ‘random chance’ is the only thing that could be reasonably assigned to the universe itself – so if it’s not random chance, it must be due to an actor in the universe, and an actor *in* the universe that doesn’t effectively fully contain the universe is an alien, not a deity. And most science types also don’t realize that arguing against the critical-thinking types along these lines is similarly poor, because the two explanations (a deity caused it/random chance caused it) are identical.

            So yeah. Logic is fun.

          4. Bones_NL: Not stupid, fact. It is basic science. I don’t think you will find anyone in the business who disagrees. There are NO examples of the emergence of a new species. Maybe it happens really fast, or involves a tiny population (likely), or involves a process that leaves no evidence (seems unlikely). There is no way to prove anything that happened in the distant past (time-like intervals when looking at the sky), we can only make inferences. Note the difference in Krauss’s attitude and demeanor between the lecture to a free thinkers meeting, and the clip with Berlinski. And he does not disagree about the science.

          5. Okay, now you’ve ventured off into crazyland. Species emergence has been observed plenty of times. Hybrid speciation has been observed in plants, butterflies, and of course, speciation has been observed in bacteria many times over. If you narrow your comments down to “yes, but we’ve never observed one species completely emerging from another, in a complex life form, in the past century” – then maybe you’ll be OK, but now you’re jumping through hoops upon hoops. After all, the idea of “distinct species” is really ridiculously silly anyway. It’s not like something happens and Bing! – you get a New Species achievement. There are shades of what a species is.

          6. There is the difficulty. You sound very confident. ” It’s not like something happens and Bing! – you get a New Species achievement.” But you can not prove that.

          7. Of course I can prove it: because “species” is a human construction. It’s not something real or concrete. Scientists have twenty-six different ways to define what a species is. So there will never be a single point that you can point to and say “here’s where we got a new species!” because “species” is not well defined. The concept of a ‘species’ is a sociological question among scientists, not a hard scientific one.

          8. In that case, you can also prove that your own statement ”It’s not like something happens and Bing! – you get a New Species achievement.” is false.

          9. No, that’s not true. The statement was “no unique speciation time exists” and the proof was “because speciation is a human construction and does not exist in a unique way.” You can’t reverse that and say “because speciation does not exist, you can’t say no unique speciation time exists.” Speciation as a *construction* is ill-defined, so any criticism of evolution based on a poorly-defined construction does not hold up. It’s like trying to make arguments about what an “omnipotent” being could or couldn’t do: the original *concept* is flawed (it’s akin to Russell’s paradox), so it’s impossible to reason with it without clarifying the original construction in such a way that it’s amenable to logical arguments.

            If you minimally define speciation as “observation of the emergence of a group of individuals who can interbreed amongst themselves, but not interbreed among other individuals descended from the same parents who can interbreed amongst themselves,” for instance, that’s been observed many, many times, like I said before.

  1. “At this point in time, no one had actually seen a massless boson, mind you.”

    Photons are massless bosons, so I’m pretty sure massless bosons are all that *anyone* has ever seen.

        1. That is a good way to put it, gravity is not a thing in itself rather it is a measure of the change in something else. It is as if you have three things and only two are real, it can be any two and their change is described by the other. The video about mentions this in the part about how the different fields may be just be different views of the multiple dimensions of a single field.

      1. You don’t need mass to be affected by gravity. Everything’s affected by gravity, because gravity changes the very spacetime that everything else interacts with.

        Photons don’t have mass because they’ve got a “perpendicular” direction (in isospin/hypercharge space) as the sea of Higgs particles that make up the condensate. That is, when you oscillate like a photon oscillates, you don’t see any changes in the Higgs condensate, so you can’t interact with it.

      2. If photons have mass, Maxwell’s Equations give much different results, like electric fields inside closed conductors. We don’t see any of those different results, which is takes as experimental evidence that photons have no mass. Yet, theory says, and experiment shows, that they have momentum. Experiment also shows that photons travel at, or very close to, the universal speed limit for information.

  2. “Whether the answer be yes or no; there is no doubt why the Higgs Boson is being called “The God Particle”.”

    Ummm…. yes there is. There very much is. Nothing in your article even suggests why it would be called that.

    I’ve never understood this (purely colloquial) terminology, as the Higgs Boson really has nothing to do with God. Why perpetuate that name, when it’s at best extremely misleading?

    The Higgs Boson is an explanation for our observation of mass. Nothing in that speaks to the existence, function, character, personality, or nature of God. It simply speaks to our understanding of a fundamental observation of the universe. Call it “the mass particle”; I can get behind that.

    1. Lederman gave it that name – there’s multiple layers to it, and obviously, theoretical physicists love 2 things: bad jokes, and making up titles that make them sound smarter than the average person (“A Brief History of Time”, seriously, Hawking?). His exact quote is:

      “This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one…”

      It honestly would’ve been much, much better named “the ether particle,” because, well… it’s essentially a fluid that fills all space that creates the photon as we know it. Which, is, uh, kinda what the ether was supposed to be. But physicists hate admitting they’re wrong.

        1. Well, the Higgs is a candidate for being called “the ether” because the ether was originally thought of as the medium that carried the electromagnetic field, and, well… the Higgs is a vacuum condensate that defines the direction that defines the electromagnetic field. Pretty similar conceptually. The interesting thing is that the *details* are ridiculously different, in such a way that all the *effects* expected from an ether go away. No preferred frame, can’t go faster than light, etc.

          But that NASA page in particular is describing gravitational effects.

          The interesting thing is that the effects you see from general relativity (like frame dragging, e.g. the Lense-Thirring effect) would be *easy* for them to understand! That’s because you can actually describe them via a gravitomagnetic approach – so you could just say “well, gravity might only look like it has an electric-like potential, but there’s actually a magnetic portion as well, so you get something like Larmor precession, with a gyromagnetic ratio of 2.” In fact, that concept (which would get you gravitational waves as well) was published *before* GR, by Heaviside, just by assuming that gravity propagates in a medium with finite speed, just like electromagnetism was thought to at the time.

    2. “The God particle” was a marketing gimmick to gain public support for the funding of the “Superconducting Super Collider” in Waxahachie,Texas. This rather arrogant move to convince the Christian public to sponsor science by using a religiously sounding brand name is rather despicable .

  3. This is a pretty standard retelling of the “common” phenomenology people try to give for the Higgs. One big problem:

    “An electron will generate an electric field within a vacuum. Remove the electron, and the field is removed as well. And now you have a true vacuum. The Higgs field is special because it is not generated by anything. It is everywhere, constantly, permeating all of space.”

    No! This isn’t right at all. Fields in QFT are there. All the time. Always. Because they’re just math: a field is something with a value that varies over the coordinates of a space. Even *particles* are described by fields: the electron field, quark field, etc. They’re all fields. An “electron” as you think of it is just a quantized excitation in that field: like a standing-wave mode on the surface of a drum. The field essentially tells you the electron number density at that point in space. There’s a fancy name for it: the ‘expectation value’ of the field.

    The electromagnetic field is something that the electron *interacts with,* not something that it *generates*. And photons are the quantized excitation of *that* field, and you can generate a number operator on that field that gives you the photon density too.

    The Higgs field is just another field like that. The difference is that the electron field and the electromagnetic field both have zero “vacuum expectation values” – in other words, in a pure vacuum, you’ve got no electrons, and no photons (still have the fields, though! Again – just math!). The Higgs field *has a vacuum expectation value*. In other words, no matter where you are in the Universe, *there’s a sea of Higgs particles*. If you stare at any section of space, there are Higgs particles there. Everywhere. It’s just a feature of the vacuum itself. (The smarmy among you may point out that this sounds a hell of a lot like the ether that people used to think the electromagnetic field propagated in. It does. And honestly, Higgs could’ve called the damn field the ether field and physicists heads would’ve exploded. Because we like nice cute explanations like “there is no ether”).

    Fields are just a mathematical way of describing some physical object (electrons, Higgs, photons) spread out over spacetime in a relativistic way(honestly, it’s kindof amazing that it takes as much effort as it does, but hey, what do you expect when you can alter time?). They’re not ‘generated’ by anything. It’s the same way you might have a ‘light field’ in a game, where you define the lighting level at each point in the game. Even where there’s no light, the field still exists, it’s just zero.

    Also, I hate this analogy:

    “A rumor of [Brian Benchoff’s] arrival starts to spread amongst the crowd, and people begin to cluster around one another to see what the commotion is about.”

    A much better analogy is this: imagine if [Al Williams] got angry at all of the hackers around, and shoved one a little. They’d bounce a bit, but settle down. Now imagine if he got *really* angry, and shoved one *really* hard. He’d create a ripple through the room that’d propagate. Now imagine what that looks like from above: while [Al]’s moving around, all of those hackers are moving, swarming, pushing, bumping. They’re all identical, so honestly, it looks like nothing but a mush.

    Then [Al] shoves one really hard, and from above, *it’d look like he created a hacker out of nothing* – because before, you saw a mess, and now, you see a moving hacker. And then when it settled back down, it’d look like it vanished again. (This part of the analogy breaks down, because the moving hacker’s losing energy by bumping into other hackers, which doesn’t work – it’d actually decay into other forms of matter. But hey, work with me here).

  4. Even though they make me study at a time when I’m ill prepared to do so, I don’t mind these sort of articles. Perhaps I missed it, it would be great if the author(s) would bring it around to how a typical DIY type could make use of this knowledge. Can the amateur chemist or electricity/electronic experimenter put study of this to use, or at the very lest make relevant to those activities?

  5. “Theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner who works out of the University of Texas in Austin, once likened himself to a prisoner in Plato’s cave. ”

    That was exactly what Plato’s cave was about, it wasn’t just an old story about brainwashed people in a cave, it was the matrix story of the time…

  6. It looks to me like the ether was abandoned in favor of relativity theory where the only absolute is the observer with everything else relative to the observer with the ego gratifying result that the observer is the center of the universe. This is a happy change since the ether would suggest absolute time and space are the ultimate reference to which everything else would be relative with the ego crushing result that the observer would be superfluous

    Its suggested that instead of gravity inexplicably acting directly mass to mass by invisible means gravity instead inexplicably acts on space time itself by invisible means which effects mass indirectly. This solves the problem of explaining how a mass less photon acts like it has mass. It seems to me that this leaves us with the further problem that without the ether, which we have denied, mass itself becomes a thorny problem.

    In order to have our cake and eat it too we postulate the new ether which we carefully avoid calling the ether for what amounts to a near religious feeling that the word itself is heretical and instead call it a “Higges Field” In this way we can have both a subjective basis for reality, observer as “center” or absolute reference of the universe AND the ether (Higgs field) as center or absolute reference of the universe.

    The Higgs is named the “God Particale” because the Higgs field restores the centrality of the objective universe, the observed, as opposed to the centrality of the subjective universe, the observer.. It seems to me that the apparent flexibility of space time could be explained by two means yet we insist on only the one.

    We could explain the apparent warping of space with an expanded Newtonian force that acts on some deeper aspect than just mass that is only mostly synonymous with it and we could explain apparent time dilation as an effect that acts on energy transfer but not on time itself (for example slowing a film might be explained as a change in time itself or as an artifact of the projectors operation). Space time may only appear to be flexible just as more distant objects may only appear to be smaller and the landscape moving past me may only appear to be moving.

    When the corner stones of our belief system impede and do not square with one another its a sign our foundation is not sound, When the laws of thermodynamics do not square with the principals of cosmology. and when quantum mechanics does not square with relativity its a sign that a quick local fix will not work, that an arduous global fix is required.

  7. Higgs Boson goes into a church, the priest says “get out of here – everyone’s calling you the God particle; we can’t have you in here”. Higgs Boson says “Ahh, but without me you can’t have mass”

  8. This stuff friggin spooked me but good!

    2001 I was working for a university chemistry department as JUST a good and faithful hourly paid support elec tech doing a job. Then this issue came up. It caused “a profound disturbance” in the Physics Department on the subject of LHC and these explained clearly impacted the opinions of the top Chemistry Professors… and most notable to me was chemistry professors were now caving and telling me physics professors were suddenly attending church and getting devout and DONATING BIG… and a lot of the chemistry folks were begrudgingly following them (with some noteable faith) and inviting me to church with the Physicists and this was UNNATURAL in view of their inter-department politics to even let one another know. Chemistry and Physics don’t get along well. Cats and dogs. Still, a pleasant outcome to my point of view, but I’m not the one to save anyone as I’m so tiny, so mouth shut was a good rule, and as many of you can already allege I seem to have load of my own to just keep down. But, still reporting accurately best I can, a lot of the Physics Department was suddenly attending and donating to the church and getting all serious about it… like serious serious no words suffice… I did note attitudes changed across the campus carte-blanche. It was not a subtle change. Not subtle at all. I was already a practicing Christian long before… but this flagged more urgency by those at last moment saving themselves by the skin of their teeth. I mentally review it constantly… still cannot find a chink… this is not a change to pooh-pooh off. Something happened to scientific beliefs that pushed theology to the top and it is outside my envelope (which is where simply belief is charged for us to have).

    …. and I’m not recommending you become Christian. I’m just saying this is what happened. Judge me as you may… doesn’t matter… This is your place to be in charge of you and yours. Am not pulling any BS. Suggest you actually consider and read if needed. You’ll find it.

    I apologize. How just is it that I should tell you something from Science given by those well above me that I MUST defer to as an ignorant hearing that I believe was told to me as truth?

    I am betting on having the pleasure to easily meet you and your significant others and childen and getting to shake all your hands and live an eternity getting to know you.

    And I’m not religious. That’s the physics of it as explained to me.

    HAD. You know not where you venture to. Accept your addition to the expanse of the eventual world.

    Examine yourself. Should it be that I’m proved a nut? I had good cause to believe. Then we were all fooled… not just me. I do NOT feel any better… but tried hard.

    1. This reads as paranoia. If you really thing the ‘God Particle’ has anything to do with God (The ‘God Particle’ name was spun up by the media, not scientists), then seriously, get help.

      And it sounds like your Physics department is insane. Nobody was converted because of the Higgs Boson.

      1. “The ‘God Particle’ name was spun up by the media, not scientists”

        No, it wasn’t. It’s the title of a book on the Higgs, by Dick Teresi and Leon Lederman. Teresi’s a writer, but Lederman’s a physicist. So yes, seriously, the whole “God Particle” crap was spun up by scientists. Which isn’t surprising, as popular theoretical physicists love to pull crap like that so they can sell books.

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