What is the Higgs Boson?

subatomic particles in atom smasher
particle of energy

Quite a few people have asked me about the Higgs Boson – or ‘God’ particle, as it’s been named – that was discovered at CERN recently. They have asked what it is and what it means for us.

The Higgs boson is a particle that gives most other particles mass.  OK, that might not mean much so let me explain it a little differently.

You can actually think of it as a field of energy and that’s an ideal analogy for how I need to explain what it is.

It’s a bit like a swimming pool that objects have to pass through. Say you had a steel ball and a dustbin lid and you had to drag both through the swimming pool. Which do you think would be easiest? The steel ball, of course! The dustbin lid would have a much greater drag factor.

The drag factor is the ‘Mass’ (or weight if that is easier to think about). The swimming pool is the Higgs field and it exerts a drag on all other particles, which mostly accounts for the differences in their masses. The Higgs boson might be thought of as a droplet of water in the swimming pool.

There’s another way you could think about it. Let’s say you have Usain Bolt, the world record holder for the 100 metres sprint (9.58 seconds) and a much less famous sprinter. Usain is much more famous so if the two sprinters walked side by side through Trafalgar Square in London, Usain would get mobbed by people, slowing down his walk. The less famous sprinter would walk right through, virtually unimpeded. You would say that Usain had greater ‘mass’. The people are the Higgs bosons and they weigh Usain down as they interact with him.

So what does that mean for you and me?

If it wasn’t for the Higgs boson most elementary particles (like quarks – that we are made of) wouldn’t have any mass and we would just be a mish-mash of particles floating in the universe, devoid of form. You wouldn’t exist, and neither would the planet Earth or the Sun. It’s kind of why some people call it the ‘God’ particle (although most physicists don’t really like the term).

So for the ordinary person it doesn’t really change anything. You exist now, partly because of the Higgs boson just as you did a few days before it was discovered. Life goes on and you’ll enjoy your morning coffee just as you did before Peter Higgs even thought up the concept of that particular boson.

It’s absolutely not the end of physics. There are still many mysteries to be probed. The Higgs boson could turn out to be not exactly as it was thought and could actually be made of smaller bits. No one knows yet. It might even by a scientific gateway that leads physicists into the search for weird new physics and even different dimensions of space and time. I think it’s all really exciting. It’s the beginning of something new!

So if you want to explain to people what the Higgs Boson is, either you can use the simple descriptions above, or you can cut it down to this simple joke:

A Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest says, ‘What are you doing in here?’ The Higgs boson replies, ‘You can’t have mass without me!’