The Columns

W&L Physics Professor Explains Higgs Boson Particle

— by on December 14th, 2011

Imagine that you’ve been working a jigsaw puzzle for 50 years—and you can’t find the one piece that will allow you to finish at least one portion of the puzzle.

The possibility that this piece might have finally been found is why physicists are so excited about this week’s announcement that scientists believe they are at least closer to finding the elusive Higgs boson particle, says H. Thomas Williams, the Morris Professor of Physics Emeritus at Washington and Lee.


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“From a physicist’s point of view, the news out of Switzerland this week is important for a couple of reasons,” said Williams. “There has been a theory around for 50 years, the Standard Model of particle physics, which is the best understanding we have of why there is such a variety of elementary particles, how they play together, what forces they put on each other and so forth. That model predicted a lot of effects and a lot of new particles, all of which have been found but one.

“The Standard Model is not the theory of everything,” he continued. “To me, it’s like you’re working a jigsaw puzzle and you’ve got thousands of pieces yet to put in but over in the left-hand corner is the palm tree that is finished except for one piece, and you get obsessed with it. You’ve got to find that one piece and plug it in there.”

That one piece, said Williams, would validate the Standard Model but would also provide a mechanism by which the other particles in the universe have mass at all, and why some have more mass than others.

“There was a time when the conclusion of many was that mass is was it is. Some things are heavy and some things are light and some things have no mass, and that’s just the way it is. Physicists don’t like that kind of answer,” Williams said. “Every time you can answer a question, they want to know what’s the next deeper question you can go after.”

Researchers using the world’s largest particle accelerator, at the European laboratory CERN, near Geneva, have suggested that data show they may be on the right track in the search.

But, Williams cautions, this week’s announcement points to more work ahead.

“What has happened is that they have done this experiment searching over this wide range of possible energies where this thing could be,” Williams said. “They have seen hints at a particular energy, which means they can focus on that part of the sky, if you will, and do some very directed experiments in that direction. That’s why they are reasonably confident that in 12 months they are going to have this cornered.”

Williams said that the particle’s discovery could have some practical impact 50 years in the future. “But right now it’s like searching for the South Pole,” he said. “It’s a quest. The longer you look for something without finding it, the more important it seems to become.”

Although the Higgs boson has been nicknamed the “god particle” in the popular press, Williams said that most physicists reject the name because it overstates the importance of this piece of the puzzle.

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