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Higgs Boson Explained in Simple Words

16th Apr 2023 @ 5 min read

Physical Chemistry

In chemistry, we mostly study simple physical matter. All physical matter, as defined in high-school chemistry, consists of atoms. Before the 20th century, we widely believed that atoms were fundamental units of physical matter. And they were indivisible, indestructible, and inseparable; further, chemical reactions were a result of combinations of these elementary atoms. However, this idea was overthrown with the advent of new atomic theories and experimentations, like Thomson's plum pudding model, Rutherford's gold foil experiment, in the early 20th century.

Newer atomic models opened a complete new dimension of how we saw and explained the atomic world. We arrived at a point in the timeline of discovery, where we explained and theorized that atoms were not a fundamental unit; they could be further divided into electrons (a negatively charged particle that revolves around the central nucleus), protons (a positively charged particle present in the central nucleus), and neutrons (a neutral particle that accompanies proton in the nucleus). And chemical reactions were results of exchange of electrons among atoms.

However, the discovery and theory in the atomic world did not stop there. New thoughts continued to emerge from scientific minds. And today, we think that the family of subatomic particles consist of electrons, fermions (quarks, antiquarks, leptons, and antileptons), and bosons (Higgs bosons, photons, gluons, weak bosons). Protons and neutrons are thought to be combinations of quarks.

Many of these particles are irrelevant in the chemistry context because most branches of chemistry are limited to electrons, protons, and neutrons.

In this article, we will discuss the Higgs boson. The scope of the article is very limited and we will not delineate physics of the Higgs boson rather we will surface through a simple overview of it.

The word "Higgs boson" consists of two words: Higgs (after British theoretical physicist Peter Ware Higgs) and boson (after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose).

Peter Ware Higgs (on the left) and Satyendra Nath Bose (on the right)

Peter Ware Higgs (on the left) and Satyendra Nath Bose (on the right)

Credit: flickr by Bengt Nyman

The Higgs boson is a scalar boson and is the only scalar boson in the standard model in particle physics. A scalar boson has zero spin and obeys Bose–Einstein statistics (B–E statistics).

Denoted by H0, the Higgs boson possesses mass explained by the Higgs Mechanism. Without the Higgs Mechanism, all bosons were considered massless. The Higgs boson is a chargeless and unstable elementary particle, decaying into other particles as soon as it forms.

As mentioned earlier, the Higgs boson is named after Peter Higgs, who along with other members of the scientific team, proposed the Higgs mechanism. The Higgs mechanism describes mass generation—how some elementary particles acquire mass or how mass originates from fundamental laws of physics.

The existence of the Higgs boson was confirmed on July 4, 2012, after many years of scientific endeavor, research and experimentation. From the mid 2012 to early 2013, a series of experiments were conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Geneva, Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest particle collider, which facilitates experimentation, testing and prediction of various particle physics' theories and verifying properties of particles. The Higgs boson has a mass approximately equal to 125 GeV. The experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider reported the mass with five standard deviations. And with such a high accuracy, the experiment was labeled as discovery. The implication of this result led to a conference of the Nobel Prize in physics to Peter Higgs in 2013. A key part of the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs boson's existence supports and strengthens particle physics theories.

The simulation experiment that led to the discoveries of the Higgs boson

(credit: CERN under CC 4.0)

The above picture illustrates a simulation of the experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), CERN depicting the generation of the Higgs boson by a collision of two protons. The Higgs boson, as described as a highly unstable particle, decays immediately into two jets of hadrons and two electrons.

The Higgs Boson is given a fancy nickname as "the God Particle". You will often find it in news outlets outside the scientific community.

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