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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

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Frequently Asked Questions About the Higgs Boson

Each time news comes out about the Higgs boson I get questions from media, friends and family trying to grasp why this particle is so important. The following questions come up again and again. So with experimenters from using Fermilab’s  Tevatron announcing new Higgs results Wednesday at a conference in Italy, I thought it was time to share answers to the questions that might pop into your mind.

Why should the average person care if the Higgs is found?

Understanding more about the building blocks of matter and the forces that control their interactions helps scientists to learn how to manipulate those forces to humankind’s benefit. For example, the study of the electron led to the development of electricity, the study of quantum mechanics made possible the creation of GPS systems and the study of the weak force led to an understanding of radioactive decay and nuclear power.

Now what?

The Tevatron experiments will continue to further analyze the Higgs boson data to wring out more information. In addition, the Tevatron and LHC experiments are working to combine their data for a release at an unspecified date.

Even if both teams find evidence of a Higgs boson in the same location, physicists will need to do more analysis to make sure the Higgs boson isn’t a non-Standard Model Higgs masquerading as a resident of the Standard Model. That will require physicists to measure several properties in addition to mass.

What would finding the Higgs boson mean for the field of physics?

Finding evidence of the Higgs boson would expand the following three areas of study:

• Pin-pointing the mass range of the Higgs would help physicists condense the number of theories about the existence of undiscovered particles and the forces that interact on them. For example, a Standard Model Higgs boson would rule out classic QCD-like versions of technicolor theory. A Higgs boson with a mass larger than 125 GeV would rule out the simplest versions of supersymmetry, or SUSY, which predict that every known particle has an unknown sibling particle with a different mass. Other theories would gain more support. One such SUSY theory predicts that a Standard Model Higgs boson would appear as the lightest of a group of five or more Higgs bosons. Whether the Higgs boson exists or not does not affect theories about the existence of extra dimensions.

• Knowing the mass of the Higgs boson would give physicists more data to plug into other equations about how our universe formed and about some of the least understood particle interactions, such as magnetic muon anomaly.

• Finding evidence of a heavy mass Higgs boson (larger than 150 GeV) would require the existence of undiscovered particles and/or forces. Finding a light mass Higgs boson (less than 125 GeV) would not require the existence of new physics but doesn’t rule it out either.

What is the difference between the Higgs boson and the Higgs field?

The Higgs field exists like a giant vat of molasses spread throughout the universe. Particles that travel through it end up with globs of molasses sticking to them, slowing them down and making them heavier. You can think of the Higgs boson as the molasses globs, or a particle manifestation of this energy field akin to a ball of energy.

Physicists have different theories about how many Higgs bosons exist, akin to predicting whether the molasses would stick in one giant glob or several globlets.

How long have physicists been looking for the Higgs?

More than a decade. It started with the LEP experiment at CERN in the 1990s, continued with the Tevatron and now with the LHC.

How do physicists create a Higgs boson?

A high-energy particle accelerator such as the Tevatron or LHC can recreate the energy levels that permeated the universe shortly after the Big Bang. Colliding particles at this energy level can set free the right amount of energy to produce particles, including a Higgs boson. The collision energy is localized in a small space and transforms from energy into the mass of the Higgs boson.

How is the Higgs boson related to the Big Bang theory?

The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago sending massless particles and radiation energy zooming through the universe like cars at rush hour. Shortly afterward, the Higgs field appeared, as if a truck carrying molasses overturned and leaked all over the highway. Particles such as light, which went through the puddle super fast, avoided having any molasses stick to them, similar to the way hydroplaning cars skim the surface of water. Particles that went through the molasses puddle more slowly had molasses goblets cling to them, creating a drag that slowed them even more and made them more massive. How fast a particle made it through the puddle determined how much molasses clung to it, and thus how massive it became. When the universe began to cool, slow particles with mass began to bunch up like mini-traffic jams and form composite particles and then atoms.

How do we know this is where the Higgs is located?

Just as firemen sweep building floors to rule out the existence of trapped homeowners, physicists have used direct and indirect observations from experiments to rule out the existence of the Higgs boson in most energy ranges where the Standard Model predicts it could reside.

Does the mass of the Higgs compare to its weight?

Sort of. Non-physicists think of mass as how much something weighs. But scientists consider mass to take into account weight and other factors. Weight changes with gravity, so you would weigh less on the moon than on Earth. Mass remains constant throughout the universe. However, when talking about things on Earth, mass and weight are fairly interchangeable.

How did the Higgs boson get the nickname “the God particle”?

Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, a Fermilab physicist, wrote a book in the early 1990s about particle physics and the search for the Higgs boson. His publisher coined the name as a marketable title for the book. Scientists dislike the nickname.

What countries are involved in the CDF and DZero experiments?

• CDF: US, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Korea, UK, Russia, Slovakia, Spain and Taiwan

• DZero; Brazil, China, Columbia, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, UK, Ukraine, US, Russia, Spain and Sweden.

What is the competitive relationship between the Tevatron and LHC experiments?

It is closer to sibling rivalry than the traditional business competition you would find in something such as the auto industry.

Fermilab supports about 1,000 US CMS scientists and engineers by providing computing facilities, office and meeting space as well as the LHC Remote Operation Center. Fermilab helped design and build the CMS detector as well as equipment for the LHC accelerator, and Fermilab scientists are working on upgrades for both and analyzing data. About one third of the members of each of the Tevatron’s experiments, CDF and DZero, are also members of the LHC experiments.

– Tona Kunz

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  • http://www.archidevsys.co.nz Gavin Flower

    “1 GeV is equivalent to the mass of a proton or the mass of one gold atom. It would take a mass of 91 GeV to equal a very course grain of sand, like uses for patio construction, (assuming that grain has a mass of 0.011 grams).”

    Surely there are many millions of protons in 0.011 grams, so the grain of sand would require considerably more than 91 Gev? Or have I missed something obvious?

    Gold is about 197 AMU, which as I understand it, equivalent to about 197 protons, and since aproton is a bit under 1Gev, a Gold atom is almost 200GeV – a lot more than 91 GeV for just one atom!

  • http://www.roscalen.com Adrian the Rock

    Surely the mass of a gold atom is a lot more than 1Gev? I make it ~ 197 x 0.931GeV = 183.4GeV.

  • Rusty

    “1 GeV is equivalent to the mass of a proton or the mass of one gold atom. It would take a mass of 91 GeV to equal a very course grain of sand…”

    I’m missing something in this statement. How can 1 GeV be equivilent to both the mass of one proton and the mass of one gold atom (which contains 79 protons and a somewhat similar number of neutrons)? And the idea that a coarse grain of sand could contain just 91 protons doesn’t seem even slightly plausible. What am I missing?

  • Dan Riley

    The mass comparison section seems badly garbled. One proton is indeed about 1 GeV mass, but a gold atom is 79 protons and somewhat more neutrons, so about 190 GeV mass. 91 GeV is one Z boson, or roughly one zirconium atom. 125 GeV is about one iodine atom.

    A grain of sand, by comparison, is around 10^20 (that’s a one followed by 20 zeros) molecules, mostly silica, so the putative mass of a single Higgs boson is minuscule compared to the mass of a grain of sand.

    Finally, the battery comparison mixes up Volts and electron-Volts, which aren’t comparable.

    For refs, try plugging “higgs mass” into Wolfram Alpha, or see the Wikipedia “orders of magnitude (mass)” page.