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This morning, I saw yet another article trying to explain the Higgs to non-physicists and mangling it up. The aim was to have an "elevator pitch". What I have here might be a little longer, but hopefully a more lucid explanation. So what is this Higgs thingamajig that physicists are going gaga about?


All matter in the universe is made up of a small number of fundamental particles. The standard model of particle physics explains this system and is based on the symmetries between these particles. And these symmetries have been experimentally verified (thoroughly) over the last few decades. The presence of these symmetries dictates that all fundamental matter particles be massless. But all observed fundamental particles have mass. So, without losing the symmetries, we need to explain how matter has mass. So we need a mechanism for particles to acquire mass even if they started out massless. A mechanism to give mass to every bit of matter in the universe.

An analogy

Now, say you're holding a massless plate in your hand, such that the plate is facing forward. Imagine you move it forward through air (or ideally vacuum). There will be no "resistance" and you'll find it easy. If you did the same in water, you'd have a tougher time. So the "interaction" between the plate and the medium gives an "effective inertia" (aka mass) to the plate. Further, you can also note that this mass varies propotionally with the size (area) of the plate. In the same manner, the Higgs field is like a medium throughout space in which all particles move. All the particles interact with the Higgs and they each get a mass propotional to how much they interact with the Higgs.

What's with the boson?

Good old quantum mechanics, where things can be both a wave and a particle. Since you can have waves in any medium (like water waves), the same happens in the Higgs field. Waves in this Higgs field permeating space(time) can be "quantized" to particles, just like photons are particles of the electromagnetic field. All the fundamental particles we know fall into two classes: bosons (typically force carriers) or fermions (typically matter). The Higgs particles (a la photons) behave like bosons.

Francois Englert and Peter Higgs won the 2013 Nobel prize in Physics for their pioneering work in discovering what is now called the 'Higgs mechanism'. Taking no credit away from these two, other people also deserve to share the honour (in no particular order) -- Phil Anderson, Robert Brout, Gerald Guralnick, C. R. Hagen, Tom Kibble, and the ATLAS and CMS teams working with the LHC at CERN.

The New York Times has a nice comic with sketches (by Nigel Holmes) explaining the Higgs mechanism. I feel they nicely augment the description I gave above; take a look. For a more technical and detailed discussion of the Higgs mechanism and its relevance to our universe, have a look at Matt Strassler's article. PHD comics also have a nice illustration about the Higgs boson.

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