Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Higgs Boson, the "God particle," and Science Fiction uses

The Standard Model of Physics, according to my enthusiastic but amateur understanding, describes all the components of the universe in terms of fundamental particles. Every physical thing and every carrier of energy consist of particles. Matter is built of atoms composed of electrons (a fundamental particle) and neutrons and protons, which are themselves built of quarks, which are smaller fundamental particles. We see light as a beam but on the smallest scale light is composed of individual particles called photons. Likewise more esoteric  (I mean harder to observe) particles are conceived of as in effect bouncing back and forth among neutrons and protons in the nucleus of an atom, holding it together and giving it radioactive decay properties—through particles that account for the strong and weak nuclear forces.

Why anyone ever called the Higgs Boson the “God particle” is a bit ridiculous. The Higgs Boson is considered to be the smallest fundamental bit of the Higgs Field that is thought to permeate the universe and is essential to hold matter together…maybe somebody opined that such an ever-present sustaining quality was  a “Godlike” trait, but space itself, distance between particles, is conceived of in a similar way, right? Everywhere you go in the universe, there’s space, which is fundamental to the existence of everything. That doesn’t make space Godlike in any other way, nor does the Higgs Field and its bosons in any other way particularly resemble God.

I’ve spent  maybe five or six hours reading about the Higgs Boson since its probable discovery this year on July 4th. I was familiar with this Boson before but to be frank, I was not able to understand its fundamental nature very well. The Higgs Field is seen as imparting mass to certain of the fundamental particles of the Standard Model while allowing others to remain massless (such as the photons that make up light). The problem I was having with this came from my high school science concept of mass being an inherent property of matter…I could understand particles of light or other forces like the strong force required to hold together the nuclei of atoms, but why would you need a particle give out the property of mass? Isn’t mass a fundamental property?

According to the Standard Model, it actually isn’t. I’ve read about this for some time and tried to understand it. Since I don’t have the decade-or-so worth of mathematics training required to understand particle physics in precise terms, I’m left with trying to get some grasp of what’s going on in a general sense using word pictures and analogies. But I found the analogies of the Higgs Field I had heard very dissatisfying.

Somewhere I read (I don’t recall where) that the Higgs Field is like molasses, so that going through it slows down ordinary matter…as opposed to photons, which by their nature at all times travels as fast as anything can go, the speed of light. But the molasses analogy didn’t give any clue what made the field “sticky” in the first place and why it would let some things pass through with zero obstructions (light), while other things stick (ordinary matter). Molasses doesn’t do that—it’s an “equal opportunity” sticky substance…even light stops there, which is why it’s dark in color.

I more recently read an analogy that compared the Higgs Field to a field of snow. Some people crossing the snow can go very smoothly and with very little resistance if they are using skis. Others, with snowshoes, can go through the snow, but slowly. Still others trudging through the same field in boots would have no chance to build up any kind of inertia moving forward. This word picture was better than the molasses notion in that it attempted to account for differing actors reacting differently to the same thing. But I still found it unsatisfactory because while it is true a skier crossing snow may be able to move with less energy expenditure than someone in boots or snowshoes, there is still an energy expenditure. And that isn’t true for photons at all as I understand things. Photos don’t work to flow over the collective mass of Higgs Bosons that make up the field. They just do flow over it, no effort required.

Besides, the Higgs Field is supposed to produce an elemental, fundamental sort of interaction, which is unlike crossing snow, which involves at least two properties: friction and gravity. So, wanting to understand, I’ve recently spent time reading a number of articles on how the Higgs Field is supposed to work.
I came to a bit of an understanding after nearly drowning myself in Cooper pairs, gauge bosons, Lagrangians, Lie groups, the Yang-Mills theory and lots of other nearly incomprehensible (to me) physics and mathematical terms—which did not represent concepts which I felt I would never be able to understand, but concerning which I realized I would not understand very well without years of study (just as I couldn’t start reading a book in German after only five or six hours of studying the language). But the bit of understanding I gained centered around the idea that the Higgs Boson breaks the symmetry of some particles--Fermions, including matter as we know it,  while it does NOT involve symmetry breaking of other particles—Bosons, including photons and other force (or energy) particles.

Don’t worry about the details of symmetry braking (I only understand it a bit vaguely myself), but my time spend reading has allowed be to come with an analogy of the Higgs Field which I like better than the ones I’d seen elsewhere (I would need a physicist to look it over to make sure it’s good, though).  You see, all these particles have a property described as spin (which may or may not be real spin—but that doesn’t matter) and it so happens that the Fermions have spins that are fractional, as in 1/2 spin, whereas the Bosons all have whole number spins, as in 2.

So imagine that these particles are laboratory centrifuges. Centrifuges with whole number spins are balanced, as in having weight on either side of the rotor at equal distances. When activated, these centrifuges will by their own nature spin up to a fixed rate of speed that is very fast (let’s ignore the electric motor in the centrifuge for a minute). But if you put a weight on only one side of a centrifuge rotor, the symmetry is broken and the machine will make a horrible noise and will not hit its maximum RPM (yes, I’ve actually done this by accident as a medical equipment repair tech…). And there is only one basic principle causing balance to change the fundamental way in which these laboratory machines will act—gravity. In the analogy I just made, the Higgs Field is like gravity pulling equally on both the balanced and unbalanced centrifuges, but only effecting the rate of speed of the unbalanced ones. In zero gravity--without the field--all centrifuges should run at the same rate, balanced or not.

It’s not a perfect analogy of course, but as the Standard Model goes, it is the interaction of Higgs Bosons with “unbalanced” Fermions like ordinary matter that prevents them from flying off at the speed of light the way Bosons such as photons do.  Which also gives them a property we commonly call “mass.”

So what are the science fiction uses of this I promised in the title of this post? Well, if the property of having mass is caused by a field, what would happen if it were possible to remove the Higgs Field from a section of space? Of course, I don’t have any idea how this would be done, but knowing the field is there is certainly the first step—and it’s the prerogative of science fiction writers to propose technology that works in ways no one currently understands (Jules Verne proposed the equivalent of nuclear energy in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea before anyone knew nuclear energy was possible). So if such a thing could be done, wouldn’t any matter reacting to the loss of the Higgs Field loose all mass and travel at the speed of light? Might this not be some form of science fiction starship drive?

And what if there were a way to remove mass without particles taking off at the speed of light? Again, I have no idea how this would be done and it certainly does not fit in with actual Physics as I understand it, but for story purposes, what people have for years been calling "antigravity" (which has no Physics justification whatsoever) would be largely reproduced with "Higgs Field Suppressors"--though the results would not be exactly the same as antigravity...removing mass would not make an object float per se, but it certainly would make it easy to move, wouldn't it?

I think though that in reality a “Higgs Field Suppressor” would have the unfortunate side effect of making each individual particle in, say, your body, travel at light speed (I don't think you can actually escape the notion that objects without mass naturally move at the speed of light)…but they would so travel from whatever direction they happened to be pointing at the moment you lost the Higgs Field…i.e. not together…i.e. you would not survive the experience. But we are talking about fiction here, so we can imagine otherwise…you could also imagine the suppressor only effects part of a Higgs Field or would alter only part of the spaceship, dragging along the rest  behind it (yes there are logical difficulties even with just a partial application).

Or it could be a weapon.  Turn on the Higgs Boson Blocker and your enemy says a 360 degree hello to Mr. Einstein…never to be seen in one piece ever again. 

I think the concept has some real story possibilities…plus, with the likely discovery of the Higgs Boson less than a month ago, it's something people are talking about...



  1. The term "God Particle" came from the book "The God Particle / If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?," by Leon Lederman & Dick Teresi (first published in 1993 and reissued in 2006), which is in the bibliography of my free ebook on comparative mysticism.

    In his 2006 Preface Dr. Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics, wrote:
    "Now as for the title, The God Particle, my coauthor, Dick Teresi, has agreed to accept the blame. I mentioned the phrase as a joke once in a speech, and he remembered it and used it as the working title of the book. The title ended up offending two groups: 1) those who believe in God and 2) those who do not. We were warmly received by those in the middle."

  2. Thanks very much for the explanation, Ron. "We were warmly received by those in the middle" put a smile on my face.

  3. Captain Travis, there are probably more people "in the middle" than either atheists or religious people would admit.