x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

What is the Higgs boson?

The Higgs is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe.

WHAT IS THE HIGGS BOSON?

The Higgs is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe. The other 11 particles predicted by the model have been found and finding the Higgs would validate the model. Ruling it out or finding something more exotic would force a rethink on how the universe is put together.

The Higgs field is a theoretical and invisible energy field that pervades the whole cosmos. Some particles, like the photons that make up light, are not affected by it and therefore have no mass. Others find it drags on them as porridge drags on a spoon.

Picture George Clooney (the particle) walking down a street with a gaggle of photographers (the Higgs field) clustered around him. An average guy on the same street (a photon) gets no attention from the paparazzi and gets on with his day. The Higgs particle is the signature of the field - an eyelash of one of the photographers.

 

WHAT IS THE STANDARD MODEL?

The Standard Model is to physics what the theory of evolution is to biology. It is the best explanation physicists have of how the building blocks of the universe are put together. It describes 12 fundamental particles, governed by four basic forces.

But the universe is a big place and the Standard Model only explains a small part of it. Scientists have spotted a gap between what we can see and what must be out there. That gap must be filled by something we do not fully understand, which they have dubbed 'dark matter'. Galaxies are also hurtling away from each other faster than the forces we know about suggest they should. This gap is filled by 'dark energy'. This poorly understood pair are believed to make up a whopping 96 per cent of the mass and energy of the cosmos.

Confirming the Standard Model, or perhaps modifying it, would be a step towards the holy grail of physics - a 'theory of everything' that encompasses dark matter, dark energy and the force of gravity, which the Standard Model also does not explain.

 

WHAT IS THE THRESHOLD FOR PROOF?

To claim a discovery, scientists have set themselves a target for certainty that they call "5 sigma". This means that there is a probability of less than one in a million that their conclusions from the data harvested from the particle accelerator are the result of a statistical fluke.