1. The Basic Idea

© Matt Strassler [September 22, 2012; revised October 10, 2012]

This is article 1 in the sequence entitled How the Higgs Field Works: with Math.

If you have read my series of articles on Particles and Fields (with math), you know that all the elementary “particles” are really quanta (i.e. waves whose amplitude and energy are the minimum allowed by quantum mechanics) in relativistic quantum fields. Such fields typically satisfy Class 1 equations of motion (or generalizations thereof, as we’ll see) of the form

  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = – (2 π νmin)2 (Z-Z0)

where Z(x,t) is the field, Z0 is its equilibrium value, x is space, t is time, d2Z/dt2 represents the change with time of the change with time of Z (and d2Z/dx2 similarly for space), c is the universal speed limit (often called “the speed of light”), and the quantity νmin is the minimum frequency allowed for waves in this field.  (For a review of these equations, see this article.) A few fields satisfy Class 0 equations, which are just Class 1 equations where the quantity νmin is zero. The quanta of such fields have mass

  • m = h νmin / c2

where h is Planck’s quantum mechanics constant. In other words,

  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2  m2 (Z-Z0)

Now all of this is only true to a point.  Really, if all that fields did was satisfy Class 0 and Class 1 equations, nothing would ever happen in the universe. Their quanta would just pass by each other and they wouldn’t do anything… no scattering, no smashing, no formation of interesting things like protons or atoms. So let’s put in a modification that is common, interesting, and required by what we know about nature from experiment. We’ll explore it more later.

Let’s think for a moment about two fields, S(x,t) and Z(x,t).  Imagine that the equations of motion for S(x,t) and Z(x,t) are modified versions of the Class 1 and Class 0 equation, which means S particles are massive but Z particles are massless.  We’ll assume (for now) that the equilibrium values S0 and  Z0 are zero.

  • d2S/dt2 – c2 d2S/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 mS2 S
  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = 0

But now let’s make the equations more complicated, in a way that is ubiquitous in for the fields of nature.  Specifically, there are additional terms in the equations involving S(x,t) multiplied by Z(x,t) [and yes, the two terms are supposed to be different — it’s not a typo, and the difference will be important]

  • d2S/dt2 – c2 d2S/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 (mS2 S + y2 S Z2)
  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2  y2 S2 Z

Remember there’s a little shorthand here, so read carefully.  S and Z are shorthand for the fields S(x,t) and Z(x,t), which can vary over space and time.  Everything else (c, h, y, mS) is a constant that does not depend on space or time.  The parameter y is a number, typically between 0 and 1, and called a “Yukawa parameter” or “Yukawa coupling”, for historical reasons. We’ll see how it comes into the story in a few moments.

In almost all circumstances in particle physics, the deviations of fields like S(x,t) and Z(x,t) from their equilibrium values S0 and Z0 are extremely small. Since we’re currently assuming S0=0 and Z0=0, this means S and Z themselves are extremely small: any waves in S and Z typically have small amplitude (they are typically made from a single quantum) and although there are always spontaneous quantum disturbances going on (often referred to as virtual particles, and discussed in the Particles and Fields articles as a sort of quantum jitter) these are also rather small in amplitude (though sometimes  big in importance.) And if S is small and Z is small, then S times Z is really small. [Consider two numbers: if a = 0.01, and b = 0.03, then a times b is 0.0003 — really small, much smaller than either a or b.] Since y isn’t big, the terms y2 S Z2 and  y2 S2 Z are small enough to ignore under many circumstances.

Specifically, we can ignore them in figuring out the mass of the S and Z “particles” (i.e., quanta).  To figure out what an S particle is like, we need to consider a wave in S(x,t), with Z(x,t) assumed to be very small.  To figure out what an Z particle is like, we need to consider a wave in Z(x,t), with S(x,t) assumed very small.    Once we ignore the extra y2 S Z2 and  y2 S2 Z terms, the S and Z fields then both satisfy the simple Class 0 or 1 equations of motion we started with, from which we deduce that the S particles have mass mS and the Z particles have zero mass.

But now imagine a world in which Z0 is zero but S0 is not zero.  We change the equations just slightly:

  • d2S/dt2 – c2 d2S/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 (mS2 [S- S0] + y2 S Z2)
  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 y2 S2 Z

Again, the S and Z fields are functions of space and time, but everything else, including S0, is a constant.  In this case Z(x,t) itself very small, but S(x,t) is not! Instead it is useful to write

  • S(x,t) = S0 + s(x,t)

where s is the variation of S away from its equilibrium value S0. We can say that s(x,t) is a shifted version of the S(x,t) field. The statement that fields in particle physics stay very near their equilibrium values most of the time is the statement that s(x,t) is very small, and not that S(x,t) is small. Substituting the red equation above into the equations above for S and Z, and remembering that S0 is constant so dS0/dt = 0 and dS0/dx=0, we find the equations become

  • d2s/dt2 – c2 d2s/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 (mS2 s + y2 [S0+s] Z2)
  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 y2 [S0+s]2 Z
    = – (2π c2/h)2 y2 (S02 + 2 sS0+s2) Z

As before, if we want to know the masses of the quanta of the S and Z fields, we can drop any term in these equations that involves a product of two or more small fields — terms like Z2 or sZ2 or sZ or s2Z. I’ve marked all the fields in purple so you can count them easily.  So let’s look at what remains if we only keep the terms involving one field:

  • d2s/dt2 – c2 d2s/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 mS2 s + …
  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 =  – (2π c2/h)2 y2 S02 Z + …

(The “+ …” is there to remind us that we dropped some terms.) Note that there is no significant change in the s field’s equation, because the new terms, y2 [S0+s] Z2 all contain at least two powers of Z.  But for the Z field’s equation, we could not ignore entirely the term y2 [S0+s]2 Z entirely, because it contained a term of the form y2 S02 Z, which contains only one field.  Consequently, although a quantum of the S field still satisfies a Class 1 equation and has mass mS, a quantum of the Z field no longer satisfies a Class 0 equation!  It now satisfies a Class 1 equation:

  • d2Z/dt2 – c2 d2Z/dx2 = – (2π c2/h)2 y2 S02 Z

Consequently the quanta of the Z field now have a mass!

  • mZ = y S0

Because of the simple interaction between the S and Z fields with strength y,  a non-zero equilibrium value S0 for the S field gives the Z quantum a mass proportional both to y and to S0.

The S field’s non-zero value has given mass to the particle of the Z field!

Fine point: Even if for some reason the mass mZ of the Z particle had been non-zero to start with, then the mass of the Z particle would still be shifted.

  • mZnew = [mZ2 + y2 S02]1/2

(recall that x1/2 means the same as √x.)

Well, this is basically how the Higgs field H(x,t) gives mass to particles. It turns out that for each known particle σ [except the Higgs itself], the equation of motion for its corresponding field Σ(x,t) is a Class 0 equation, which naively would imply the σ particle is massless. But for many of these fields there are extra terms in the equation of motion, including a term of the form

  • yσ2 [H(x,t)]2 Σ(x,t) ,

where yσ is a Yukawa parameter, different for each field, that represents the strength of the interaction between the H field and the Σ field. In such a circumstance, a non-zero average value for the Higgs field, H(x,t) = H0, shifts the minimum-frequency of Σ waves, and thus the mass of σ particles, from zero to something non-zero: mσ = yσ H0. Diversity among the Yukawa parameters for the various fields of nature leads to the diversity of masses among the “particles” (more precisely, the “quanta”) of nature.

Notice, by the way, that the Higgs particle has nothing to do with this.  A Higgs particle is a quantum of the Higgs field — a ripple of minimum energy in H(x,t), a little wave that depends on space and time.  What gives mass to the other known particles of nature is the non-zero equilibrium constant value for the Higgs field, H(x,t) = H0, all across the universe; this timeless and universally present constant is very different from Higgs particles, which are ripples that vary over space and time, and are both localized and ephemeral.

That’s the basic idea. I’ve left lots of obvious questions unanswered here: why should we expect there to be terms in the equations that involve the product of two or more fields? [Read about the profound importance of such terms here.] Why would the known particles be massless if there were no Higgs field? Why is the Higgs field’s equilibrium value non-zero while this is not true of most other fields? How does the Higgs particle enter the story? The ensuing articles will try to address these and other issues.

21 responses to “1. The Basic Idea

  1. Matt, a question:
    In the article “What If the Higgs Field Were Zero” you show that the EM and Weak force would no longer exist, instead there would be Hypercharge and Isospin force. My question is: How does the Higgs Field interfere in the electromagnetic interaction if the photon is massless??? That sounds paradoxal to me.

  2. Matt,

    It seems that the Higgs theory replaces the arbitrary particle masses with an equal number of arbitrary Yukawa parameters, as well as an arbitrary non-zero equilibrium value for the Higgs field itself.

    How does the Higgs theory simply things?

  3. Pingback: New Article on the Non-Zero Value of the Higgs Field | Of Particular Significance

  4. Thanks so much for taking the (considerable) trouble to explain this basic physics to the less-competent, like me. As an ex-physicist who has spent much of his life working with microwaves, the idea of a lower cut-off frequency is a familiar one. Does this mean that the energy of a standing-wave field in a waveguide at cut-off gives an effective mass to aphoton inside the waveguide?

    • Hi Robert,
      The existence of a lower cut-off frequency in a cavity with microwaves is due to the geometry of the cavity — the length of the cavity sets the longest allowed wavelength for a standing wave that the cavity can support. The standing waves inside the cavity are still standard electromagnetic waves, which are of type “Class 0” as defined by Prof. Stassler. For “Class 1” waves, on the other hand, the cutoff is, in some sense, intrinsic (please compare the equations of motion of the two classes of waves written down by Prof. Strassler). For example, by making your cavity longer, you can decrease the cut-off. Had it been a “Class 1” wave inside your cavity, this would not have been possible.

      Hope this helps.

  5. Hi Matt,
    Have you considered using Mathjax for the math formulas on your pages? It’s a simple WordPress plugin that lets you use inline Latex syntax.

  6. I also vote for Mathjax or something similar

  7. Matt,

    Some clarification would be greatly appreciated here (!):

    You show that a particle of the Z field gains mass due to S having a non-zero equilibrium value. To begin, however, we assume that quanta of the S field `already’ have non-zero mass (before any interaction whatsoever?). How do we explain this phenomenon? (Maybe I missed something absolutely crucial there… ) I imagine that quanta of the S field indeed would NOT have mass unless there was, to begin, some interaction between Z and S. Then, interaction of Z and S is indeed what gives quanta of BOTH fields their mass? This seams reasonable experimentally even… since if there was ONLY one field in existence, I couldn’t imagine a way to go about measuring the mass of the field quanta. So, who is to say what the mass is in this case, and what difference would it make if there were no interactions anyway? (Unless, the field could interact with itself? i.e. self-coupling?)

    Furthermore, when we add a term like y^2 S Z^2 to the right side of the S field equation, this seems to me to effectively immediately alter the mass of the S field quanta. ie. L ~ (m_S)^2 S + y^2 S Z^2 = [(m_S)^2 + y^2 Z^2]S …

    (where `L’ is short for the `left-hand side of the equation’)

    so now the S field quanta has effective mass [(m_S)^2 + y^2 Z^2] ?

  8. Is seems like good, but it’s based on a very useful eq., hv (nu) = mc2, what can do mass for everything, he-he, because photon is massles, and the commonly used E (or H in some cases) = mc2 (what means the T+V). Funny. But this term anybody can use, maybe before the Higgs-term born, so I think it’s wouldn’t enough to understand “how the Higgs-field gives mass for particles” term.

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  12. Thank you greatly for very accessible explanations. I’ve read that ~99% of mass of proton comes from the kinetic energy of its quarks and the energy of the gluon mediated fields. How does this kinetic energy contribute to mass? Is there a deeper understanding than E=m*c^2? Does it have something to do with the moving quarks encountering more Higgs field?

  13. Do you think that it is possible to modulate the Higgs field using an interference pattern. If so it would be useful in relativistic space travel to combat the increase the mass of the spaceship at relativistic speeds.

  14. Bill Grossman

    I am interested in whether you feel that it is possible to modulate the Higgs Field in order to compensate for the increase in mass experienced by interstellar space ships traveling at relativistic speeds.
    Please respond to Drbillg@comcast.net
    Thank you

  15. Hi, Matt.

    Remember the ‘good old days’, back when physics was easy? There was only one force… the Unified Force. Ah, we were happy in those days. Simpler times. Then those darned kids came along with their long hair and music so loud it broke the symmetry. What a mess. Neutrons and protons living together, electrons dancing around everywhere. The universe went all hippie-dippie. Get off my quantum field, you damn kids! LOL

    When the Electroweak Force symmetry broke, it gave rise to the Higgs field.

    Does this imply that when the Unified Force symmetry broke into the Electronuclear Force and Gravity, and when the Electronuclear Force symmetry broke into the Strong Nuclear Force and Electroweak Force, that it similarly gave rise to fields?

    If so, what are those fields, and what effects do they have?

  16. Anirban Naskar

    I think there is an electro magnetic radiation with lowest energy which is consist of a unit of mass called unit photons and when they collide their energy Adds up giving a wave of greater frequency.

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