Remembering Peter Higgs And The Gravity Of His Contributions To Physics

There are probably very few people on this globe who at some point in time haven’t heard the term ‘Higgs Boson’  zip past, along with the term ‘God Particle’. As during the 2010s the scientists at CERN were trying to find evidence for the existence of this scalar boson and with it evidence for the existence of the Higgs field that according to the Standard Model gives mass to gauge bosons like photons, this effort got communicated in the international media and elsewhere in a variety of ways.

Along with this media frenzy, the physicist after whom the Higgs boson was named also gained more fame, despite Peter Higgs already having been a well-known presence in the scientific community for decades by that time until his retirement in 1996. With Peter Higgs’ recent death after a brief illness at the age of 94, we are saying farewell to one of the big names in physics. Even if not a household name like Einstein and Stephen Hawking, the photogenic hunt for the Higgs boson ended up highlighting a story that began in the 1960s with a series of papers.

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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…

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