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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Northern Irish Scientist Works to Prove Higgs Boson Exists

Steve Myers is a physicist from Northern Ireland who is part of the team which is accumulating evidence of the Higgs boson.

What is the Higgs boson?

It's an elementary particle.

It is really, really small. It's smaller than atoms, electrons, protons, and neutrons.

If you took science classes in the late 60s or early 70s, you probably remember the pictures of atoms as little balls called electrons circling a cluster of protons and neutrons. The cluster was the nucleus of the atom. The idea was much like planets going around the sun.

Then when you took chemistry in college, the professor and textbooks told you electrons traveled in orbitals. Some orbitals were spheres around the nucleus which seemed like the old model of electrons but the orbits could be anywhere at a set distance from the nucleus so you got a sphere the electron moved in, instead of a flat circular orbit.

But some of the orbitals looked like water balloons oriented around the central nucleus. Those looked odd, but then you really got your mind stretched because the professor told you the electrons weren't really particles and the orbitals were sort of clouds of positions of where the electron might be.  The electron was a cloud? You probably thought, "Where did my particles go?"

To make matters worse, scientists continued to call electrons particles, even though they really meant they were clouds of where the electron might be if you forced it to become a particle for an instant.

But the clouds were really useful because if you brought two atoms together and their electrons could share the orbital clouds and satisfy the maximum number of electrons which that orbital liked to have, then you would have a really strong chemical bond. Also, if you excited the electrons to higher orbitals and then they electrons would fall back to their lower original orbitals and release energy in the form of light.

So it was tough to argue with clouds because they explained all the bond strengths and energy states so well. And the artists could show me the shaped clouds called orbitals, so I eventually got comfortable with them.
Fast forward to today, and all these particles have been determined to be made of smaller particles that again are not really tiny balls at all, at least no one thinks they are.

From Wikipedia, here are some particles that appear to make up the things we see or otherwise perceive:

"The 12 fundamental fermionic flavours are divided into three generations of four particles each. Six of the particles are quarks. The remaining six are leptons, three of which are neutrinos, and the remaining three of which have an electric charge of −1: the electron and its two cousins, the muon and the tau."

Stay with me.

These particles have properties called things like charge (like the property assigned to electrons, and protons), spin, and color.  Spin isn't really what you are thinking of and color is definitely an odd term used to describe the nearly unexplainable. I haven't seen an artistic rendition of all these things yet. Do you have one?

Just a little more and we'll get to the Higgs Boson.

All 24 elementary particles are either fermions or antiparticles (depending on their spin). Don't ask. Just accept it.

The bosons either mediate forces or are the Higgs Boson.

If the Higgs boson exists, it has a spin of 0 and is responsible for the intrinsic mass of particles.

If it exists, the Higgs boson would most likely explain the existence of the Higgs Field. 

The Higgs Field is suspected to exist everywhere, including in a perfect vacuum.

Here is what blows my mind:

My high school physics textbook was innovative for its time. It taught about the history of physics as well as the theories then present.  In the 1800s there was this theory of aether (or 'ether' was another spelling) being a field that penetrated all space as a transmission medium for the propagation of electromagnetic or gravitational forces.  It was an invisible lattice that allowed all elements and forces to work.  In 1905, Albert Einstein himself shot down the whole theory of aether with his special theory of relativity.

Most physicists concluded that this theory of an aether was not a useful concept.

What amazes me is that after more than 100 years, the theory of physics has returned back to a field that exist everywhere, even in a vacuum!
Next Post: Why we should care about the Higgs boson and are the technologies on Star Trek really possible? Click here.

Here is a good, easily understood presentation on the Higgs boson.

And this one goes deeper still.

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