Of Particular Significance

Some Personal Reflections on the Discovery of a Higgs-Like Particle

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 08/01/2012

The intensity of the last few weeks has been almost beyond description, and certainly unmatched in my career as a theoretical physicist.  For me, and for many of my colleagues, the end of a decades-long hunt for the Higgs particle comes with a sense almost of disbelief.  Did this really just happen?  Did the years and years of anticipation, which had become almost a part of our communal culture, a sort of Waiting For Godot, a hope for a Promised Land always out of reach, actually come to an end?

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2 Responses

    1. Vaguely similar, enormously different.

      Similar, in that they are both fields: things that can exist anywhere in space and time, can be nonzero on average, and can wave back and forth, with the waves traveling through space and causing the field in any one location to become repeatedly larger and smaller.

      Different, in that the magnetic field at any location points in a particular direction, while the Higgs field is just a number at each location and does not point anywhere [the magnetic field and electric field form a field of spin 1, while the Higgs field is a field of spin 0.]

      Different, in that the magnetic field can have an enormous range (the sun’s magnetic field stretches to the earth and far beyond) while the Higgs field can only have a tiny range (the Higgs field emitted by the protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom does not each stretch across the atom before dying off) [and this is because the photon, the particle of light out of whose virtual particles the electric and magnetic fields are formed, is massless, while the Higgs field is formed out of virtual Higgs particles, and the Higgs particle is heavy. (Note virtual particles are not particles; they are an unfortunate name for disturbances in the fields — but the properties of real particles reflect some of the properties of real ones. I’ll explain this in future posts.)] This is why, even though we can make magnets that allow two chunks of ordinary matter to hold together because of magnetic attraction, Higgs attraction is such a short-range effect that it does not have any impact on chunks of matter, or even on individual atoms.

      Different, in that the magnetic field in the universe is, on average, zero, while the Higgs field in the universe is, on average, non-zero.

      If I think of other important ones I’ll add them.

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