Professor Higgs’ particle

François Englert (left) and Peter Higgs speak to conference attendees at CERN on July 4, 2012, on the occasion of the announcement of the discovery of a Higgs boson by the ATLAS and CMS experiments. Photo: Maximilien Brice/CERN

If it wasn’t for this particle, you wouldn’t exist.

Even though the auditorium at CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland was packed, you could have heard a pin drop as Fabiola Gianotti, leader of a 3,000-physicist multinational team, made a dramatic pause before her final slide.

Halfway around the world in Australia, at a major physics conference, proceedings were put on hold to watch a live video of her talk, and that of the other team, using the biggest, most complex machine ever built — the Large Hadron Collider.

At Fermilab in Batavia, excited physicists crammed into a room surrounded by computer screens, even though it was before dawn on the Fourth of July in 2012. After both talks, the CERN director general announced to great applause, “I think we’ve got it”.

But what is “it”? And why is “it” so important? It is called the “Higgs boson” or just “the Higgs.”

Eighty-four-year-old Professor Higgs had come from Edinburgh, Scotland, to CERN for the occasion and was teary-eyed. “I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” he said quietly.

Jump up and down to feel the pull of gravity, and play with a magnet to feel it pulling things without contact. The strength and direction of these pulls is described by what physicists call “fields”: gravitational field or magnetic field, for example.

Fifty years ago physicists, pondering how particles get mass, had suggested that there is another field, but one with no direction and the same value everywhere throughout the universe. It is just there. If this field were not there, every electron in every atom would have no mass and would shoot off at the speed of light. No more atoms, no you.

Dr. Higgs said, “If that field exists, there should be a particle that goes with it,” just as the electromagnetic field, light, has a particle, the photon. The Higgs particle is heavier than a silver atom but trillions of times smaller. Perhaps it has no size at all! It disintegrates to lighter particles immediately and has no practical applications, so what’s the big deal?

At last we know how all electrons, in you, in stars and galaxies, get mass as they plow through the Higgs field.

I have no room to explain, but Leon Lederman, past director of Fermilab, wrote a book about it called “The God Particle.” We physicists ragged him about the title, but it was good marketing!

This is a version of an article that first appeared in Positively Naperville.