Why is the Higgs Boson so Important? A Basic Explanation for Students and other Life-Long Learners

Two months ago, when most of the nation was celebrating Independence Day, the scientific community celebrated an incredible milestone in the field of physics—the discovery of the Higgs boson, also known as the “God particle.” You’ve probably seen the Higgs boson discussed in the news for a week after the story hit, but are you still wondering what it’s all about? Why is it important? Without going into too much technical deal, here’s the Higgs boson in a nutshell, and why you should know about it.

What, exactly, is the Higgs boson?

If you remember taking physics in high school, you probably learned about particles, which make up the universe and everything in it. The particles you learned about probably include protons, neutrons, and electrons. There are other types of particles as well, however, that aren’t often taught in basic science courses. These include quarks, leptons, and others. The one thing that’s common to the particles just listed is that they are particles with matter, and fall into the category called fermions. There is another category of particles, and they’re called bosons.

Bosons are different from fermions in that they don’t necessarily contain matter. They are more like force- particles. The Higgs boson is only one of many other bosons. These include photons (which you probably learned about in physics), gluons, and W and Z bosons. Physicists speculate that there exists also a graviton boson, but it hasn’t been proved yet.

What was proved recently and what drew such ubiquitous media attention was that the Higgs boson actually does exist (with a 5-sigma degree of certainty, which is exceptionally high). The Higgs boson is a particle that mediates other particles in the Higgs field. The Higgs field, like other fields (one you may be familiar with is the electromagnetic field), permeates the entire universe. The interplay of Higgs bosons and other particles in the Higgs field is considered the Higgs mechanism, which is thought to all work together and explain a bunch of phenomena in the Universe, including how particles may acquire mass.

Why is the discovery of the Higgs boson so important?

There are several reasons why the Higgs boson is so important, the most important of which is that it confirms the Standard Model of Physics. Since the Standard Model has been developed, scientists have merely operated under the assumption that the Higgs boson does exist, although it has never been proved. If the Higgs boson did not exist, then much of physics as we understand it now would be disproved. Now that we know it does exist, we know we are on the right track to understanding the Universe and how it works. That is to say, the Universe does seem to have a logic and pattern that we are slowly but surely working towards discovering.

Another reason why the Higgs boson is so important, at least on a more pragmatic level, is that it has paved the way for discovering other possible particles, and has provided the impetus for continuing to fund scientific projects like the Large Hadron Collider, which is what proved the existence of the Higgs boson in the first place. Though we can’t know for sure, the discovery of the Higgs boson could translate into technological advances that transcend the rather niche world of theoretical physics. And, in the final analysis, the excitement of such discoveries will draw more and more students to careers in STEM, an area that desperately needs more manpower.

For more information about the Higg’s boson, check out this Atlantic Monthly article and this PhD Comics video, both of which break down the complexities of the Higgs boson in an easy-to-understand way.

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This has been a guest post by Mariana Ashley, who writes about educational topics for www.onlinecolleges.net and she can be reached at [email protected]