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Higgs Bosons Everyone

Higgs Bosons Everyone

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Published by Duncan Black

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Published by: Duncan Black on Dec 12, 2011
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07/19/2013

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Higgs Bosons for Everyone
As has been widely reported, two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland have found evidence
(though not yet conclusive evidence) of a long-sought subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. It was postulatedin 1964 by Peter W. Higgs, an English physicist who has spent most of his career at the University of Edinburgh,Scotland. Two groups (F. Englert & R. Brout; G. Guralnik, C. R. Hagen & T. Kibble) independently arrived at thesame (or similar) ideas at the same time. In 2010 the J.J. Sakurai Prize was given for this idea, and split between
all six men. The Physics Nobel has never been shared by more than three individuals, but this discovery may
prompt a departure from tradition. The particle is however invariably known as “the Higgs”.What is the Higgs boson? What’s a boson? Why is the Higgs boson important?
All subatomic particles have a peculiar property called
spin 
. Spin is described mathematically as a form of angularmomentum (the property that spinning ice skaters use to increase their rotation rate as they bring in their arms).To be honest, subatomic particles should not be imagined as little tops that are actually rotating. This is a commondifficulty in the language used to describe the physics of very small things: Physicists use familiar terms to describebehavior that is completely unfamiliar. Consequently non-physicists are liable to be wildly confused by terms thatthey think they understand, but which are used in a very different manner than in everyday speech. The physics of very small things is called
quantum mechanics 
, which is famously weird. Spin in this context is entirely a quantum
mechanical property.
Spin is measured in units of Planck’s constant (denoted
h
) divided by
2
π
. (Yes, it’s weird.) The symbol for thisis
, pronounced “h bar”. All particles yet discovered or postulated have fixed values of spin. Electrons, protons,neutrons, neutrinos and quarks all have spin of 
12
. Photons (bits of light), the “weak photons” the W
+
, the W
and the Z
0
(about which more shortly), and the gluons (which bind quarks into protons, neutrons and most of theknown subatomic particles) all have spin
. The hypothetical graviton (related to gravity as photons are related toelectricity and magnetism) has spin
2
. The Higgs is imagined to have spin
0
. All the known particles have spin
which is either a whole number multiple of 
(0, 1, 2 ...) or a half whole number multiple of 
(
12
,
32
,
52
. . .
). Theformer are called
bosons 
, and the latter are called
fermions 
, named respectively for the physicists S. N. Bose and
Enrico Fermi, who figured out the statistics of a large number of identical particles of either type.The Higgs particle is called a Higgs boson because it has a spin value of 
0
, and zero is a whole number.
Why is the Higgs boson important? In itself, oddly, it isn’t that important except as a proof that something else is
happening. The thing that is very important is called
the Higgs mechanism 
. What is
that 
?
Apart from gravity (which remains the odd one out) there are three fundamental forces so far discovered:
electromagnetism
, the
strong force
which binds quarks together, and the
weak force
which is responsible fora type of nuclear decay discovered by Pierre and Marie Curie,
beta decay 
. (The strong force is also called the “colorforce”, but as usual with ordinary sounding words in quantum mechanics, this has nothing at all to do with actual
color. The theory describing this is called
quantum chromodynamics 
, or QCD for short, “chromo” from the Latin
for “color”.)
During the period 1964-1973, physicists figured out a generic mathematics called
gauge theory 
which seemed todescribe each of the forces very well, though each force needs its own version of the mathematics. The originalversion was found as a curious mathematical property in the theory of electromagnetism; it was later realized(through the work of Hermann Weyl in 1918, and C.N. Yang and R. Mills in 1954) that this property (“gaugeinvariance”) was the key to constructing theories of all the forces (gravity also embodies this property.) There isonly one sort of photon, but for the strong force, a family of eight “strong photons”, or gluons, was needed. Forthe weak force, you need a family of three “weak photons”, one charged
+
(like a proton), one charged
like an
electron, and one neutral. The terms “gauge theory” and “Yang-Mills theory” are pretty much interchangeable. Thetheories together form what is called the
Standard Model
of elementary particles. Taken together they make up
a kind of cathedral of ideas.
Finally we get to why physicists are so excited by the possible sighting of the Higgs boson. The gluons were
postulated, and they have been seen. (The three physicists responsible for the theory of QCD have won the Nobel.)
The weak photons were postulated, and they have been observed. (Those who postulated the weak photons and
the leaders of the teams that found them have all won the Nobel.) The Higgs is the last stone of the cathedral yet
to be found. If it is shown not to exist, then the entire structure is in trouble.Why is the Higgs mechanism needed? This can be explained very simply.
In the late 1920s it was realized that electromagnetism at the quantum level was actually the interaction of 

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