Dummies Guide to the Higgs Boson



Where does the name come from?
It is named Higgs after the Scottish theoretical physicist Peter Higgs who was one of the first to predict that this particle existed. Bosons are a type of subatomic particle which can occupy the same point in space as each other unlike matter particles, such as electrons, which can never overlap.

So what does the Higgs Field do?

Many Higgs bosons clumped together make up the Higgs field, this field causes particles to have mass. Without the Higgs field, the universe would just be individual particles zipping around at the speed of light, no atoms of any kind would exist. The Higgs field is everywhere so particles travel through it all the time. However, particles with a greater mass will interact more with the Higgs field than particles with a lower mass. This would explain why two particles, which are the same size, can have different masses.

The greater the mass of an object, the harder it is to move around. If you were to imagine guests at a celebrity party to be the Higgs field and the members of Take That, who are trying to get through to the bar, as particles trying to move through the field. Robbie and Gary attract the most attention, are stopped by more guests and struggle to get through the crowd. Therefore they have more mass than Mark, who interacts with fewer people but Mark would have a greater mass than Jason and Howard who move through the crowd generally uninterrupted, as they have a much lower mass than the others.

How did they find it?
Peter Higgs first proposed his ideas 50 years ago and it has taken until now for technology to catch up in order to finally find the boson. The Higgs is difficult to observe because it is very unstable and breaks down very quickly. At the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, protons are accelerated to almost the speed of light and smashed together. In one out of every 10 billion collisions, a Higgs boson will be formed. If one is formed, it cannot be observed directly because it exists for such a short space of time before breaking down. Scientists record the remnants of the collision and work backwards, piecing together what particles came from the decay of the Higgs. By doing this, they have found a previously undiscovered boson, thought to be the Higgs, of mass 125 Gigaelectronvolts, about 125 times the size of a proton.

Why is it called the ‘God Particle’?

The name has encouraged the media to shine a bright spotlight on the hunt for the Higgs, probably because it implies that its discovery will see a new dawn in science. However, the name ‘God’ particle is in fact a mistake. Physicists actually nicknamed it the ‘God damn’ particle in frustration because it was so hard to find, not because it is the key to the power of an almighty being.

Why should we care?
A lot of time and effort has gone into the search; almost 4 years of experiments and approximately £8.2 billion pounds and yet it is not known how this discovery could be of any practical use. That does seem a lot of effort just for the physicists to complete their model. However, the more we understand about the natural world, the more likely we are to find a way to use it to our advantage. After all, Michael Faraday, when asked what the practical applications of the newly discovered electric motor would be, replied ‘I know not, but I wager one day the government will tax it’.

Joanne Blunt

Follow Impact Science on Twitter.

Image: Lucas Taylor


9 Comments on this post.
  • john forest
    31 October 2013 at 09:17
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    i cant get my head around the fact that interacting with the higgs field can give inertia to a particle,ie inertia comes into play when a body accelerates rather then when in constant velocity,sombody please enlighten me and explain john forst

  • Jed
    31 October 2013 at 21:49
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    Thank you for your use of easy to understand words and references, it really helped me with my homework (and was a lot better than my Dad). The facts were also genuinely fascinating and I believe that you should help more budding physicists and continue these “Dummies Guide to…” pieces, for there are quite a few teenagers finding it hard to find effective websites for their homework.
    P.S. Thank you again

  • Jed
    31 October 2013 at 21:55
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    Thank you for your use of easy to understand words and references, it was extremely useful for my physics research project (and was a lot better than my Dad). Please continue these “Dummies Guide to…” pieces because I’ll probably use them in the future and I believe that many other struggling teenagers will also gain help from these guides, thank you again for your help,

  • Jed
    31 October 2013 at 21:56
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  • Jed
    31 October 2013 at 21:56
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    I thought I had accidentally deleted my first comment: crap

  • Pratap ganguly
    26 February 2015 at 12:26
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    Nice article to read, enjoy and understand for a layman. Thanks

  • chadawan
    10 March 2015 at 17:42
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    Brilliant! article absolutely fascinating to read, this was the only decent website that I could find that explained it in decent language for us teenagers to read..i shall be using this information n my lecture on the particle tomorrow 🙂

  • Bill Christie
    6 March 2017 at 14:54
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    You are doing a good job. Thanks. I’m writing to communicate an idea that might add to the insight. Maybe the Higgs effect is to spiral the boson particle into rotation so that it travels a helical path rather than a straight path thus slowing it down. The rotation would also create mass because it becomes localized energy. That to me is a better analogy than someone plodding through a snow field or swimming through molasses picking up stuff. However, you say that a photon will not interact with the Higgs field so that would seem to contradict the electron positron pair creation. However yet again, an electron can not be created by one photon + binding energy alone. Creation of electrons and positrons always come in pairs. When an electron and positron collide, they anniliate and you get two photons (gamma rays). Just sharing some thoughts.
    Bill Christie

  • Ronnie
    23 August 2017 at 22:50
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    What the the Higgs Boson has done in my mind is to get close to the creation of life itself. Earth I believe contains the DNA of the universe. How to extend life astronomically to coincide just our galaxy.

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