So I got the following questions from a high school English teacher this morning, and I thought, for fun, I’d put the answers here for you to enjoy. Here (slightly abridged) is what the teacher wrote, and my answers:
I’ve turned my classroom into a video game to increase student engagement. In my gamified classroom, the villain is experimenting with/on the Higgs field. Your article on what would happen if the Higgs field was turned off answered a lot of my questions, but … I was hoping you could answer a couple of questions for me. I am sure these questions probably don’t have “real” answers, and are completely ridiculous, but I’d love to hear from you.
1. I’ve gathered from your site, and others like it, that turning off the Higgs field and making particles mass-less isn’t possible.
- That’s correct. The Higgs field‘s non-zero average value is held in place by interactions of the field with itself and with other fields, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to change it. That’s reflected in the fact that the Higgs particle (i.e. Higgs boson) has a large mass compared to the particles that predominantly make up ordinary matter: electrons and up and down quarks. Even to turn off the Higgs field for an instant in your classroom alone would require taking all the energy of a supernova (the largest type of explosion we regularly observe in the universe, in which a big star blows itself to pieces), and focusing it into that one room. On top of that, it’s not enough just to have the energy; you have to find a way to make it do what you want, and that would be extremely difficult to achieve in this case. But let’s ignore that complication; we’ve got plenty of problems already.
If it were, how might my villain try to do that? What he shoot it the field with protons, or smash two Higgs bosons together? How would one try to turn off a field?
- Um, that’s a tough one. Shooting the field with protons, or smashing Higgs particles together, couldn’t change the Higgs field appreciably any more than shooting bullets into the sea, or smashing big ocean waves together, could boil away the oceans. [That's not meant as a close analogy, but it gives the rough intuition.]
- Imagining something even semi-realistic is nigh impossible. To turn off the Higgs field across the entire earth and its vicinity would force our villain to get all the stars in our galaxy, and all of the galaxies anywhere nearby, to simultaneously explode, and to then direct their energy entirely to the earth. And then, that’s just enough to turn the Higgs field off for an instant. To turn it off and keep it off would require even more energy… Meanwhile, just the arrival of all that energy beamed at the earth would vaporize the planet even before the Higgs field turned off!
- Perhaps your villain has discovered that the universe was built by and is controlled by a supercomputer, itself created by a species of intelligent creatures that lives in a different universe; and your villain has hacked into the computer and has figured out how to use it to turn off the Higgs field without needing to gather any energy at all. Unbelievable as this scenario is, at least it allows you to imagine evading the known laws of physics without apology. Anything that I can think of that obeys those laws seems just as crazy!
2. In your article you said a world with no Higgs field would be uninhabitable. If it were, in theory, what would a world with no Higgs field be like? Would people float away? Get turned inside out? Would we all be crushed? I want to paint a picture of what would happen to the world if the villain were successful in turning off the Higgs field while we were on Earth.
- Oh no, it’s much worse than just having an uninhabitable planet. There’d be nothing around here except elementary particles. With the Higgs field turned off, all atoms in the Higgs field-less region would instantly explode! The size of an atom increases as the mass of the electron decreases; turn off the electron mass, which would drop to zero if the Higgs field were turned off, and atoms would just fall apart. Of course all physical materials are made from atoms — and all chemistry and biology is based on atoms — so there’d be no earth or people left. Just a very big BOOM! How big? The disintegration of the earth’s atoms would release roughly enough energy to heat everything in and on the earth instantly to something like 10,000 degrees. Actually it is probably a lot worse than this. More subtle effects on the nuclei of atoms would probably result in a temperature close to 1,000,000,000,000 degrees — quite a bit hotter than the interior of the sun. So imagine turning the earth into something as hot as the sun, even for a few moments. There’s not much point in discussing the details of what happens to human bodies; just like the rocks and the oceans and the air, we’d all be totally and instantaneously disintegrated into our constituent subatomic particles. You know what people say about wanting to“become one with the Earth” — well, this is more like “becoming bazillions with the Earth”…
3. Is there any possibility that the Higgs boson/field, and the future advances in science that comes with it, might one day lead to a new energy source? Similar to a Nuclear plant, could one day we collide two Higgs bosons together for energy?
- It’s very difficult to predict the future; the first person who created radio waves didn’t see any use for them, and the first people who thought about nuclear fusion (the source of energy in the sun) were confident it would never be considered potentially useful on earth. So I’ll be cautious here. Still, most experts (including me) would guess that the answer is that we won’t get a new energy source, at least not in any direct way. You can get energy if you have it stored somewhere and you can release it, but (for the reasons just discussed) you have to put energy in to make the Higgs field do something other than just sit there, and there’s no known or imaginable way to draw energy from it. Certainly we won’t collide Higgs particle together for energy; it takes lots of energy to make them, they last only a tiny tiny tiny fraction of a second, and whatever energy is released in their collisions or decays will be less than you put in. [This is in contrast to coal or gasoline or atomic nuclei, which are just found lying around, waiting for us to find ways to release their stored energy by burning the coal or gas, or breaking apart the nuclei.] But there could, of course, be indirect impacts. Perhaps what we learn from the Higgs boson will in turn allow us to discover some other source of stored energy… ahhh, fine, but now we’re just speculating wildly.
- So if you want to speculate wildly, here’s a way. Suppose it turns out that dark matter has energy stored in it that it gradually releases, and that what we learn from the studies of the Higgs boson indirectly teaches us where to detect clumps of dark matter in distant orbits around the sun; then you can imagine we might someday put space stations near those clumps that power themselves off of the energy that the dark matter is slowly emitting from its storehouse. Almost totally unbelievable. But you’re making up a game. Go for it.