The Higgs Effect

One side-effect of the discovery of an extremely strong strong candidate for a Higgs particle (first announced by the LHC in July 2012) is certainly the rapid publication of books!

I was in Waterstones in Farnham recently to have a look around and, under Popular Science, I was surprised to see that they already had two on the subject:

Higgs: The invention and discovery of the ‘God Particle’ by Jim Baggott (314 pages)
Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space by Lisa Randall (64 pages)

To get a flavour of the former see here (extract below)

The mechanism works like this. Without the Higgs field, elementary particles such as quarks (the constituents of protons and neutrons) and electrons would flit past each other at the speed of light, like ghostly will o’ the wisps. The elementary particles that make up you, me and the visible universe would consequently have no mass. Without the Higgs field mass could not be constructed and nothing could be.

What actually happens is that these elementary particles interact with the Higgs field and are slowed down by it, as though swimming in molasses. We interpret this ‘slowing down’ as inertia and, ever since Galileo, we have identified inertia as a property of things with mass.

and the latter has got a very positive review here.

Over the last ten years, I’ve been amazed at how popular expositions of quite complex science have really taken off (which is great). I guess, in part, it’s due to scientists becoming much more media savvy and realising that funding and general opportunities can be strongly influenced by public profile. But I also like to think that most people still retain a basic interest into why things are the way they are and how our understanding has progressed (even if some of that curiosity has been accidentally knocked out of them at school).

In ordinary conversations these days, I’m even hearing “Large Hadron Collider” and the “Higgs”!

How The Higgs Relates To Other Particles

There’s an interesting personal historical note here. When I was doing my doctorate in particle physics at Imperial College in the 70’s Abdus Salam was a Professor in the Department as well as Tom Kibble.

Salam was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 (shared with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow) for his work on unifying the weak and electromagnetic forces and the so-called Higgs mechanism (for giving some key particles mass) would be a critical ingredient in this.

Furthermore, Tom Kibble played an important role in the clarification and understanding of the Higgs mechanism.

So I was lucky enough to be at Imperial during an incredibly exciting period.

Professor Abdus Salam (1926 – 1996)

I seem to remember that Salam used to visit Imperial for a week or so every month (he held another position at an International Centre in Trieste, Italy) and there was generally quite a hubbub when he was around. On one occasion word went out that he wanted to interview each of the particle physics PhD students. There was a handful of us and no reason was given. This was quite unusual as we interacted with all the other staff on a regular and easy basis and communication was excellent.

In my interview somehow or other I started going on about the low public profile of particle physics even though some amazing advances were being made and they weren’t being well communicated to the public. He agreed with me, said it was an important topic and suggested I seize the opportunity and do it myself! This totally shocked me as this wasn’t the sort of career I had in mind, although with hindsight it might have been excellent and prescient advice.

I’ve often thought about this and how best to benefit when being in the (rare) situation of talking to someone who can give advice from a genuinely big picture. My guess is that they’ll always say something you don’t expect and you might even find a bit odd!

However I think the smart thing to do is to write it down, leave it a while, and then just openly think about it even if it contradicts practically everything else you’re doing. I’m not saying I would have been good at popular science or that I would (in reality) have enjoyed it but I did lose an opportunity by not giving it the attention it deserved.

As we’re often told, chance favours the prepared mind. In this case, being prepared for the unexpected!

Picture credits: top, middle, bottom.

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