What is This “God Particle,” Anyway?

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So the Higgs boson (probably) exists. But, um, what does that mean exactly? When talk at your weekend barbecues turns to the God Particle, you could always mutter something about dark matter before escaping to get some more cole slaw — or you could listen to Johns Hopkins physicist David Kaplan‘s seven-minute nutshell explanation of particle physics’ newest family member below the jump, and have at least three smart things to say to impress your friends and neighbors.

First things first:  this is important stuff, as it relates to the structure of the universe, and also why matter (ie, you, me, your morning cup of coffee, etc.) exists, rather than not existing… hence the “God particle” phrase that gets thrown around sometimes. According to Kaplan, what the physicists at CERN were able to (mostly) prove was that the Higgs field exists. (Or, to put it in scientist terms, “The Higgs field appears to be turned on in our universe.”) Whereas a magnetic field — the force that makes magnets attract or repel each other, even when they’re not touching — is strong near magnets and weaker farther away from them, the Higgs field is uniform throughout the universe. And this field is what gives mass to fundamental particles like electrons, thereby allowing matter to exist. Hooray!

Now, here’s where it gets kind of trippy:  “Particles are not fundamental,” Kaplan says. Particles are just the vibration or wave of a field. Consider a lake after someone’s thrown a rock into it, as ripples are spreading out across the surface:  even though you can see and measure the ripples (or the particles), you wouldn’t say they’re fundamental; it’s the lake itself (the field) that’s fundamental. Just let that percolate for a minute or two.

Anyway, Kaplan has a lot of other smart things to say — but not too many! — below. Why not learn something this morning?



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