Where’s the Higgs?
Last Tuesday, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) delivered a press conference and presentation that set hearts alight and renewed new hope in the search for the Higgs Boson, the legendary particle—part of the aptly named Higgs Field—that could make or break the Standard Model of Physics. Normally, I detest science-by-press-conference; I have been burned before. But alas, my job and my journalistic integrity demanded I follow the news.
As expected, the overly-hyped presentation confirmed that the jury is still out and there has yet to be a discovery of the Higgs Boson. On the bright side, after the August setback, this puts new hope in finding the elusive cornerstone of the universe. The ATLAS team placed their results at 2.8 Sigma, which is both highly promising but inconclusive at the same time. The Sigma system is a statistical term used to measure standard deviation. In simple terms, it’s the probability that their results were a fluke. A Sigma of 5 or greater is needed to announce a discovery. That’s the 99.9998% confidence level figure cited in the comic. At Sigma 5, the chances of an event being a fluke are 0.0002%. Pretty good odds. Here’s a comic to explain:
Done looking? Great. How did this start? Happy you asked. In the Mad Art Lab back-channel, it was suggested that somebody make a “Where’s Waldo” style image regarding the search for the Higgs. I thought about it, and it dawned on me that it that finding the Higgs Boson isn’t like finding Waldo at all. It’s more like if Waldo exploded and you needed to collect his body parts and identify the body. That’s how the scientists at CERN are looking for the Higgs, and that’s how today’s comic was born.
But then I took it one step further: The reality is actually much more confusing. The more accurate comparison would be as if Higgsy had a probability of turning into two bananas and an acorn squash. In effect, you would have to count up bananas, and even then, you’d only be basing it off of one event, so you wouldn’t be able to achieve that 5 Sigma result. I have adjusted the comic to match this craziness. If you like actually being able to complete the puzzle, the older, less sciency version can be seen here.
So what is a Higgs? Named for Peter Higgs (making a cameo appearance as Higgsy) in the 1960’s, it represents a field in space that bestows all things with mass. When you empty a portion of space of all its stuff (objects, air, atoms) it’s actually not empty at all. Quantum physicists have found it to be a roiling sea of particles that pop in and out of existence in fractions of a second. The Higgs Field is theorized to occupy this space as well. When particles such as quarks, bosons, lepton, protons, electrons and otherwise move through the Higgs Field, it “pulls” on them. Think of it like a pool full of molasses or better yet, a room full Justin Bieber fans.
If I were to foolishly walk into this room, there’s a tiny chance that one or two may mistake me for Justin Bieber and latch on, but otherwise, I should be able to move through the room unscathed; Like an electron, I interact very weakly with this field. But if Bieber himself walked into the room, he would be mobbed and find himself having a much harder time moving through.
So why is the Higgs Field so important? Because without mass, basic things like atoms wouldn’t form and space would just be a soup of particles—all zipping about without a care. It anchors all particles in space, binding them together to form the building blocks of everything. It’s sort of like the Force.
You can learn more about the Higgs in this handy FAQ. Last week on the World Science Festival website, physicist Brian Greene gave his reaction to the news about the Higgs, and he even got together with Lawrence Krauss to answer some questions about the CERN announcement.
If you want to play some more, here’s a checklist for you. In this image there are:
- Two observers
- Three Time Travelers (Five if you count the observers)
- Two Star Trek references
- Surprisingly only one comic book character
- Three monkeys
- Five police officers
- One Detective
- Two cats
- Two Makis
- Two Nadirs
- A giant can of pepper spray
- Eleven cameras (Both cellphone and otherwise)
This post was brought to you by MASS!
Full Disclosure for the above links: I work for the World Science Festival.
Also posted on sci-ence.org