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What exactly is a Higgs boson? An explanation for the rest of us

If you’ve heard the news about the Nobel Prize in physics, you might be asking yourself: What is a  Higgs boson anyway?

If you know one thing about the Higgs boson, it’s probably that it’s called the “God particle.” Leon Lederman, who won a Nobel in 1988 for discovering a couple of other subatomic particles, coined that term in 1993 because the Higgs was so hard to pin down. As Eryn Brown reported, Lederman had really wanted to call it the “Goddamn particle.”

But that doesn’t really answer the question. The Higgs boson is the particle associated with the Higgs field, an energy field that transmits mass to the things that travel through it. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert theorized way back in 1964 that this is how things in the universe – stars, planets, even people – came to have mass.

That may be a little hard to digest if you’re totally unfamiliar with particle physics. So let’s turn to Ian Sample, who wrote a book about the Higgs boson called “Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle.” In this video from the Guardian, Sample uses a cafeteria tray, brown sugar and colorful ping pong balls to explain what happened when the Higgs field “switched on” about a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, and how that wound up imparting mass to particles.

It was a great theory, and it became a cornerstone of the Standard Model of particle physics. But could physicists conduct an experiment to confirm the theory?

That’s where particle accelerators come in. The one that scientists used to “find” the Higgs boson is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It’s a 17-mile track buried underground outside Geneva that shoots beams of protons into each other. When they collide, they create super-high-energy mash-ups that spew out subatomic particles. From time to time, a Higgs boson might be one of those particles.

This video (also shown above) from the grad student comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper” does a fantastic job of explaining why the LHC smashes particles together, what it looks for in the aftermath, and why it takes “a bajillion collisions” to find the Higgs boson, as narrator Daniel Whiteson, an experimental physicist, puts it. “That’s why we run this thing 40 million times a second, all day, all year,” he says.

Those who prefer a comic-book style (ie, non-video) version can find that online here.

Still hungry for more? For a general introduction to the LHC, check out this famous (in certain circles) rap video by alpinekat. Despite its low production values, it’s been viewed nearly 7.7 million times since it was uploaded to YouTube in 2008. The CMS and ATLAS experiments are the ones that pertain to the Higgs search.

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