Posted by jlwile on July 5, 2012The media is abuzz with the announcement that two separate groups have discovered evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, which has been called “the God particle.” That’s an unfortunate name, because the Higgs boson has nothing more to do with God than any other particle in His creation. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the Higgs boson is unimportant. Indeed, it is very important, and if the results announced really do indicate the existence of the Higgs boson, it is a major victory for the Standard Model of physics. It just has nothing special to do with God.
To understand what the Higgs boson is, think of something that is probably a little more familiar to you: the electromagnetic force. When two particles are charged, they affect one another through the electromagnetic force. If they are oppositely charged, they will attract one another, and if they both carry the same charge, they will repel one another. We can represent this interaction with a series of field lines, such as those given in the illustration above. Those lines show you the electric field, which causes the charged particles to interact with one another.
But how do these particles interact? How does one charged particle “know” that there is another charged particle out there, and how does it “know” whether to be attracted to it or repelled by it? The answer is that the charged particles exchange photons (particles of light). This exchange allows the electromagnetic force to work. If it weren’t for the exchange of photons, the two charged particles could not affect one another, so without the exchange of photons, there would be no electromagnetic force. In “physics speak,” we say that photons mediate the electromagnetic field.
The Higgs boson is, like the photon, a mediator. It is supposed to mediate the Higgs field, which is what the Standard Model of physics says determines the mass of every particle in the universe.
Now wait a minute. Doesn’t the amount of “stuff” in a particle determine its mass? After all, consider two books. They are both made using the same kinds of cover and paper, but one book has 100 pages, while the other book has 1,000 pages. The latter book is the heavier one, right? It has more mass because it has more pages. Isn’t that how particle mass is determined as well? Not really. Consider the electron, for example. Modern physics calls it a point particle. That means it is infinitely small. In other words, it has no volume. How can something with no volume have any “stuff” in it at all?
In the Standard Model, the mass of a particle is not measured by how much “stuff” the particle has in it. Instead, mass is considered a property, like charge. A particle doesn’t have to hold any “stuff” to have charge, and in the Standard Model, it also doesn’t have to hold any “stuff” to have mass. So in the end, the Standard Model needs something to give particles (like electrons) their mass. That’s what the Higgs field is supposed to do. The Higgs field permeates the entire universe, and the way a particle interacts with the Higgs field determines its mass. Photons don’t interact with the Higgs field at all, for example, so they have no mass. Electrons have mass because they interact with the Higgs field, and the amount of mass they have depends on the strength of that interaction.
The Higgs boson, of course, is what mediates the Higgs field. In other words, it provides a way for particles to interact with the field. We can never see the field, but if the field is real, we should be able to see the particle that mediates it. That’s why scientists have been searching for the Higgs boson. If we find the particle that mediates the field, we know the field is real. If we know the field is real, we know the mechanism by which particles have mass.
Why has the Higgs boson been called the “God Particle?” Well, some physicists say that without it, particles would have no mass, therefore there would be no gravity, therefore there would be no stars, no planets, and no people. So the Higgs boson is the reason we all exist. However, that’s rather foolish. I could just as easily say that without electrical charge there would be no people, because the chemistry that runs our bodies depends on the existence of electrical charge. In that case, then, the photon is the “God Particle,” since it mediates the electromagnetic field. Others have suggested that because the Higgs field permeates all of space, it is like God, who is omnipresent. But space permeates all space as well. Is space like God? Of course not.
So the Higgs boson has nothing more to do with God than any other particle in His creation. It is a very important part of the Standard model of physics, and although I haven’t been able to look at their data yet, the scientists at CERN really think they have found it. If that turns out to be true, it’s great news for the Standard Model, but it really has nothing to do with God!