Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Angelina Jolie Particle

50. The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll

I have "absolute zero" background in physics. I never even took it in high school. Yet, I've always been fascinated by how the universe works and how we came into existence (and why, but that's another matter). Like everyone else, I was excited last July to read about the discovery of the Higgs Boson, also known as "the God Particle." But what does the Higgs really represent, what does it do, and what are its implications for the origins of "life, the universe, and everything" (you know, "the whole General Mishmash)?

Sean Carroll makes it seem not only easy to understand, but positively thrilling. A physicist at Caltech, Carroll's sheer passion for his subject shines through the book. Playful chapter titles and subtitles let the reader in on the joke, such as Chapter Six entitled “Wisdom Through Smashing,” and subtitled “In which we learn how to discover new particles by colliding other particles at enormous speeds, and watching what happens.” That's how the Higgs was found; it's a particle that emerges when other particles are smashed together.

In order to explain why scientists were looking for the Higgs in the first place, Carroll guides the physics neophyte through the Standard Model of particles. The Standard Model, a way of organizing the relationships between different particles, cannot be explained without something like the Higgs Boson. One of physics' central mysteries is whether matter is composed of particles or waves. Caroll explains succinctly, “Matter is really waves, but when we look at it…we see particles.” The Higgs Boson is a wave in the Higgs field, as photons (light particles) are waves in the electromagnetic field. Unlike any other field, the Higgs exists in empty space at a nonzero energy level. All matter (even, scientists theorize, dark matter) has to travel through the Higgs field, preventing every particle from traveling at an identical speed, or in other words, giving it mass.

How does the Higgs field give mass to other particles? Well, imagine that the Higgs Boson is Angelina Jolie. If Jolie and Sean Carroll walk at the same speed from one end of an empty room to the other, they will both reach the end at the same time. However, if the experiment is repeated in a room full of people, Jolie will reach the end later. She'll be constantly stopped along the way for autographs and chitchat. In this scenario, Jolie has more “mass” than Carroll. She holds the other particles together, at least at certain points in time.

One doesn’t need to know anything about physics to comprehend Carroll’s defense of its pursuit, which takes up the first and last chapters. He actively avoids claiming any practical applications for particle physics (though he notes that there were no apparent applications for electricity or relativity either) and instead concentrates on the wonder factor. “Science,” he writes, “is the quest for awesome,” and that’s why we should care about the Higgs Boson. This is a book not for those with technical expertise, but for those interested in the awesome. Carroll invites anyone who wants to understand the mysteries of the universe-at least, so far as he does. We peer through the looking glass with him, as we hope that the Higgs is the gate to dark matter (and who knows, maybe even red).

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