About the Higgs Boson by a Biologist

Unless you’re totally and completely uninterested in any news whatsoever, you’ve probably heard about the announcement from CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) that experiments in the Large Hadron Collider have found some pretty strong evidence for the existence of the Higgs particle. Scientists will spend several more months to fully confirm the discovery, but right now things are looking good. But, as with much theoretical physics (now no longer quite so theoretical),the question remains – why do we care?

Some people get really upset that everyone doesn’t automatically care about scientific discoveries. I guess I understand their pain, to some extent; it’s normal to want everyone to get super stoked on your biggest passion. But I have a somewhat different perspective – people have limited time and energy to care about things and if we want everyone to care about our stuff, we best give them a very good reason to. This is my attempt to give y’all a very good reason to care about the Higgs particle.

At its core, the discovery of the Higgs particle, or Higgs boson, means that the intricate theories and calculations physicists were making to explain and understand the world were right. See, the Higgs particle was a proposed but not found particle with an associated Higgs field that would provide the simplest explanation for why everything around us has mass. According to the calculations, after the Big Bang, the Higgs field, which is everywhere, turned on and particles like electrons and quarks got mass. So if CERN scientists have found the Higgs particle, and there’s a decent chance that they have, then we now have evidence that our (well, Peter Higgs’s, Robert Brout’s, Francois Englert’s, Tom Kibble’s, C. R. Hagen’s, and Gerald Guralnik’s) calculations and theories about one of the fundamental aspects of our universe, how we and everything around us has mass, is correct. It sheds more light into the opening milliseconds of our universe. It provides another piece of the puzzle of us.

One reason I love studying biology is because the questions force me to think about how interconnected everything is, from the natural systems plants and animals and us inhabit to the amazing workings of cells and the organelles within them. Understanding these systems requires knowledge of or a willingness to learn something about the underlying chemistry, geology, and physics. While it’s hard to predict how or if the discovery of the Higgs would affect my research, I appreciate it for illuminating just that bit more of the world.

On July 4th, the day of the announcement, physicists were popping champagne corks and celebrating. In part, I know they were celebrating this mounting evidence and now seemingly imminent confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs particle. Where this discovery will take us is hard to predict, but I also know that many of them were celebrating the new questions they could ask and pursue, the new doors opened by this discovery. Each bit of scientific discovery illuminates a little more of the world. This is a big discovery, gigantic, and it has the opportunity to illuminate so much.

For more reading about the Higgs particle, check out this great piece at the Guardian. Also, be sure to check out Hillary’s post here tomorrow for her perspective.

9 thoughts on “About the Higgs Boson by a Biologist”

  1. Thanks for this!  Somehow I managed to ignore the capitalization and thought “boson” was a person too, until I saw your list of scientists. Saved me an awkward conversational moment later!

  2. This was recently posted to my Facebook wall by a friend:

    A Higgs boson walks into a Catholic church. The priest says “we don’t allow hypothetical particles in here.” The boson says, “but without me you can’t have mass!”

    heyyoo! I love it. That is going to be my new explanation for why some call it the God particle. Although it starting off as the Goddamn particle is also pretty great.

    1. HAHA! I love your joke (or your friend’s joke) and may have to steal it.

      I was really disappointed that nobody I knew on Facebook was talking about the discovery. I know very little about science but I was still super excited about it and the implications. Besides, when you’ve been looking for something for a long time, that you’re pretty sure exists but there isn’t any proof, and then you find that proof? Best feeling in the world, I’m sure.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I have so many questions about this, but my science knowledge is nearly zero.  I understand the basics and understand what it hopefully will tell us about mass.  However, can you please explain what the next steps would be?  So they think they have nailed down mass, BBT, etc, but now what happens?  What kinds of things do you think will be next?

    I really understand little, but feel like I’m alive for something exciting – but I don’t really get what!

    Also, I know it was first being called the god particle.  I haven’t seen any religious-crazies backlash.  Does that happen?

    1. The guy who dubbed it the God Particle apparently wanted to call it the goddamn particle but that didn’t go over as well! I haven’t seen any backlash yet, but I’m sure someone will have something dumb to say about it eventually.

      So far as what happens next, I’m not sure. It looks like the Higgs might not be the only particle that imparts mass, so there will probably be a push to find the ones we didn’t know about before.

    2. I keep wondering about when the religious science denying stupid will come too. But that it hasn’t come yet is hopeful, I think. It would be nice if we could just have some yay for science moments without someone having to be bass akcwards about it.

    3. Yep, like Hillary said, the God particle may actually have originally been called the goddamn particle because it was so hard to pinpoint. I like calling it the Higgs particle because, well, it’s easy attribution. I haven’t really heard much backlash, but who knows what the future holds.

      As for what the future holds for the Higgs research, I again think that Hillary is pretty spot on. In addition to a simple Higgs particle, there may be more complex particles out there and it’d be cool to get a handle on those. I don’t know that we can quite predict all of the next steps – research can be a remarkably non-linear pursuit, at least in my experience. Like, looking back you see your path, but looking ahead, things are less clear. So there are some basic steps (getting this discovery confirmed,  exploring other particles, and trying to determine more about the properties of the Higgs, for example), but beyond that, I’m not sure. It’s an exciting mystery!

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