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October 15, 2013 | By:  James Keen
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Higgs Bosons and Snowflakes

Half a century ago, six physicists proposed the idea of a new subatomic particle whose existence would help explain the masses of elementary particles. Ever since then, the hunt has been on to find it.

On the 4th of July 2012, the two main experiments (ATLAS and CMS) at the LHC in Cern both reported independently the confirmed existence of a previously unknown particle with a mass of about 125 GeV/c2 (about 133 proton masses, or around order 10-25kg) which is "consistent with the Higgs boson theory" and is widely believed to be the Higgs boson. Further work is expected to add more validity to its apparent discovery. Two of the original theorists, Higgs and Englert, have just been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

To understand why the Higgs boson is so important, we consider the Standard Model, one of the most prominent and successful theories in physics. This model shows how our complicated universe can be broken down into basic building blocks. Matter is made up of fundamental particles called Fermions, of which there are six quarks and six leptons. Quarks combine together to form protons and neutrons, with types of leptons including neutrinos and the electron. There are also four bosons, or force carriers, which are responsible for electromagnetic forces.

The standard model is very effective, aside from being able to include gravity and dark matter. Physicists have used it to predict the existence of some particles years before they were discovered experimentally.

There has been though one big missing piece - the Higgs boson - which is believed to transfer mass to the other particles.

According to the Standard Model all particles have no inherent mass, but instead gain mass as they move through a Higgs field, which is made up of lots of Higgs particles. The different ways in which particles interact with this field explains why different particles have different masses.

Think of the Higgs field as a field covered in snow; the Higgs particles are analogous to snowflakes.

Photons and gluons move through the Higgs field unaffected, like birds flying high above the field. Like a skier gliding across the surface of the snow, electrons barely interact with the Higgs field, which is why they have little mass.

Quarks, the fundamental particles that combine together to form protons and neutrons, are like someone walking through the snow in that they interact more with the Higgs field than electrons do and so have a little more mass. W and Z bosons, responsible for the Weak force, have much more mass as they interact very strongly with the Higgs field, like someone wearing heavy boots plodding through the snow.

The so-called "God Particle" has attracted public and media interest like few other things in physics. Whilst it has yet to be conclusively discovered, there is the intriguing possibility that we've unravelled the mystery of our existence a little bit more.

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