Home > Physics > The (Simple) Physics of the ‘God Particle’

The (Simple) Physics of the ‘God Particle’

The ‘God Particle’.

Pretty catchy name. Its been in the news quite a bit lately. But what is it exactly? And why would they call it the ‘God Particle’? Especially since science and religion get along about as well as Frank and Estelle Costanza!

Well in this blog post, I’m going to give you a basic and (hopefully!) entertaining explanation of what the God Particle is, and why we should care. So let’s start at the beginning.

The ‘God Particle’ is also (and more accurately) known as the Higgs Boson. Described in a single sentence, it is believed to be the particle that gives mass to all other particles in the Universe.

Ok, that SOUNDS important, but its still a bit hard to understand, so here’s a bit more thorough explanation.

Everything in the universe is made up of particles. And there are several different kinds of particles.

All the matter in the universe is made up of atoms. Atoms are made of a nucleus, which is found at the center of the atom and has neutrons and protons in it. Surrounding the nucleus are electrons, which are much smaller and fly around the nucleus in a circle, or an ‘orbit’.

Groups of atoms can get together and form molecules, and big groups can get together to form rocks, trees, and Maria Sharapova.

So thats 3 particles we have already described (protons, neutrons, and electrons). These 3 particles have mass; this essentially means that they weigh something.

But there are other types of particles out there too. For example, there is the photon.

Photons are are basically light. They are tiny packages of energy that make up a beam of light. They also make up radio waves, x-rays, and gamma rays (the stuff that gave the Fantastic Four their powers).

But photons are different from, say, protons, because they don’t have any mass. They carry light energy from the sun, for example, to the Earth. Or they can carry radio messages from the radio station to your house. So photons are like messengers; as such, they are sometimes called “messenger particles”.

A “messenger particle” is also called a boson. Bosons are really cool because they actually DO something. What do I mean by that?

Well, if you remember high school physics or chemistry class, you know there are 4 forces in nature. Gravity is one of them, and it is the most familiar too us. Its what keeps us firmly planted to the ground. Electromagnetism is what makes electricity, light beams, radio waves, and magnets work.

You Can Visualize a Magnetic Field with Iron filings and a Bar Magnet

The other two forces are a little less familar. They are called the Strong nuclear force, and the Weak nuclear force. These two are basically what holds the nucleus of the atom together, and make it behave the way it does.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well remember bosons are messenger particles. The photon carries the electromagnetic force “message”. The other forces in nature have bosons as well that carry their “messages”. Gravity has the “graviton” (which hasn’t been observed yet but we think its out there). The strong nuclear force has the “Gluon” (because it ‘glues’ the nucleus together). And the weak nuclear force has the “W” boson (it doesn”t get a cool name because its not cool).

Ok, now we get to the Higgs boson. So, since it is a boson, it must be the “messenger” of something right? So what is it the messenger of?

Well, remember I said that protons, neutrons and electrons have mass? But the photon does not have any mass. Why is that? What is it that makes one particle have mass, and the other not have mass? Even a couple of the bosons have mass! Thats just freakin’ weird.

So particle physicists (one of the named Peter Higgs, oddly enough) came up with a theory. They think there is some kind of a field in the universe called the “Higgs Field”. Its kind of like a gravity field, or a magnetic field. Just like a magnetic field will interact with some iron to pull it in one direction, the Higgs Field will also interact with particles. But instead of pulling at them, the Higgs Field gives these particles mass! It makes them heavy!

The theory also says there should be something called the Higgs boson: an actual particle that carries the Higgs field “message”. And thats what we are trying to find. The Higgs boson is the messenger particle of the Higgs Field, which is (theoretically) what gives particles their mass. If we do find it, then we know our theories about how the universe is made are on the right track. It would be HUGE breakthrough for physics!

One problem: the Higgs boson is supposed to be heavy! Well, for a particle its pretty heavy.

In fact, the only way to actually “make” one is by slamming together stuff like protons at close to the speed of light in what we call a “particle collider”. And we need to slam them together at a really BIG energy, so we need a BIG collider. Thats why we have the Large Hadron Collider.

The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland

Ok, so thats the explanation of what the Higgs boson is and why we should care. So why is it called the ‘God Particle’.

Well, a guy named Leon Lederman wrote a book called “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?which was actually about the Higgs boson. Calling it the “God Particle” was a kind of grandiose name because it suggested we knew what it was that gave particles mass, what made they heavy or “real”. Very “god-like” I suppose”.

The term “God Particle” also showed up in Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons”. In the book some claimed that the discovery of the particle would prove the existence of God.

Finding the Higgs would be great, but would hardly prove the existence of God. The use of these terms is largely to increase media interest.

Phew, well there you have it. If you want to hear more about Physics news as it happens you can follow me on Twitter! Or you can follow the Large Hadron Collider on Twitter!

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. August 19, 2010 at 11:12 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: