Physics is fun

Gravity is “just a theory”, like evolution, you know.

Peter Higgs is Professor Emeritus of the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. In 1964 he wrote a paper in which he proposed a new particle which explained a missing part of the Standard Model of physics: the Higgs Boson. (A paper he wrote which presents the history of his idea for physicists: My Life As a Boson.)

Peter MacDonald interviewed him for the BBC in February this year:

First, here’s the problem: take an object – say Isaac Newton’s apocryphal apple. Here on Earth, it weighs something. But even if you put the apple in the weightlessness of space it will still have mass. Why? Where does mass come from?

Newton couldn’t explain that. Neither could Einstein. But in 1964 Peter Higgs did.

And now they think they’ve found it.

You can listen to this morning’s webcast from CERN here. The announcement was also liveblogged from Australia. They have discovered a boson using the Large Hadron Collider which is likely to be the Higgs boson.

The second half of the presentation was given by Fabiola Gianotti, the head of the group of 3000 scientists who work on the LHC’s five-storey Atlas detector.

The appointment put her in the top ranks of a profession dominated by men. She came to physics from an education steeped in ancient Greek, philosophy and the history of art – she had also trained as a pianist at the Milan Conservatory. But she ultimately chose physics to answer the big question of why things are as they are. “Physics is, unfortunately, often seen as a male subject; sterile and without charm or emotion,” she told the Cern magazine. “But this is not true, because physics is art, aesthetics, beauty and symmetry.”

There is a great outline of the Standard Model here:

The standard model is the name given in the 1970s to a theory of fundamental particles and how they interact. It incorporated all that was known about subatomic particles at the time and predicted the existence of additional particles as well.

There are seventeen named particles in the standard model, organized into the chart shown below. The last particles discovered were the W and Z bosons in 1983, the top quark in 1995, the tauon neutrino in 2000, and the higgs boson in 2012.

How do you find a Higgs boson? A crash course. (+video)

If theories are correct, the Higgs boson existed only during the first millionth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang some 13.6 billion years ago. As the universe cooled, all the Higgs bosons decayed into other particles. That means to find it, scientists have to make it themselves, recreating the high energies that existed when the universe was only a millionth of a millionth of a second old.

The Higgs boson could never have been discovered without the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – indeed, which was partly built so that it could find Higgs:

The Higgs boson is the last subatomic elemental particle predicted by the Standard Model to be discovered experimentally.

The model is a fundamental part of quantum physics, which manages to incorporate three of the four known fundamental interactions – the electromagnetic, weak, and strong nuclear interactions – meaning only gravity is excluded. Since its formulation in the mid 20th century, Standard Model has been considered increasingly credible as new discoveries conformed to its predictions.

The LHC has been the source of more geeky jokes and misunderstandings than possibly any other large science project ever even before it was first switched on, 10th September nearly four years ago. On Monday 8th September 2008, Charlie Stross found it necessary to point out:

We. Are. Not. Going. To. Die. On. Wednesday.

The maximum energy the particles generated by the LHC (7TeV) get up to is many orders of magnitude below the maximum energy of cosmic rays that hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere from space every fricking day. None of them have created black holes and gobbled up the planet, or turned us all into strange matter. Nor have they done ditto to any cosmic bodies we can see, such as planets or stars. Therefore the world isn’t going end when they switch on the LHC on Wednesday. QED.

Joking is all very well, but please, can we not be spreading the FUD and scaring people needlessly? The current climate of superstitious dread with respect to the sciences is bad enough as it is …

And yes, the presentation was in Comic Sans. From now on, the Font of Knowledge.

Higgs boson discovered

Update, 8th October 2013:

Peter Higgs and François Englert (Professor emeritus at the Université Libre de Bruxelles) have been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics, for their discovery of the Higgs boson. There was also discussion about whether the Cern Institute should be awarded the Nobel Prize for the work of the Large Hadron Collider project in finding the Higgs boson.

But the physics committee cannot win. Give the prize for the Higgs theory, in which the eponymous boson appears, and they face another problem. A Nobel prize can be shared by a maximum of three people, but at least six physicists wrote out the theory in 1964. One – Belgian physicist Robert Brout – died in 2011. But five into three does still not go.

The committee can contrive the wording of the prize to narrow the number downwards and this is likely to happen. The prize could go to François Englert, who published the idea first, and Peter Higgs, who was second, but crucially was first to flag up the new particle. But that would rebuff the trio of Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble, who developed the theory separately and published just a month after Higgs. The possibility has already caused acrimony among the scientists. Guralnik and Hagen, two US researchers, believe European physicists have conspired to erase their contribution from history.

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