Archive | November 2014

The Higgs boson Part 1: What is the Higgs?

The Standard Model is remarkably successful at explaining all the variety of particles we see in nature in terms of 16 fundamental particles. But there was one mystery yet remaining: why do some of those particles have mass but not others?

It seemed odd that photons and gluons (the force carriers of the electromagnetic and strong forces) were completely massless, and yet the W and Z particles (the force carriers of the weak force) weighed more than an entire atom of iron! It was clear that there had to be some kind of new mechanism that could give mass to some particles and none to others.

The solution came in 1964, when six physicists in three different groups (including Peter Higgs and François Englert, the 2012 noble prize winners) postulated that a field filling the entire universe, the Higgs field, is what gives fundamental particles their mass. The smoking gun signature of the existence of such a field would be a seventeenth fundamental particle: the Higgs boson.

Professor Peter Higgs Image credit: Claudia Marcelloni/ATLAS

Professor Peter Higgs
Image credit: Claudia Marcelloni/ATLAS

So how does it work? Imagine a field (the kind with grass and sheep) coated in snow. A skier passes by, gliding easily over the snow. Then a woman wearing snowshoes shuffles by, being slowed down by the snow. Next, a man in heavy boots struggles onwards, at each step being slowed by the snow. Finally, imagine a bird flying overhead, completely unaffected by the snow. In this analogy, the field of snow is the Higgs field and each character is a different fundamental particle. The bird is a massless particle like a photon, passing by without interacting with the field. The skier is a really light particle such as an electron, with very little mass at all. The woman in the snowshoes is a slightly heavier particle, such as a quark, and finally the man with the heavy boots is a truly massive particle like the W and Z particles, slowed by the Higgs field at every opportunity. So we see that the mass of a particle depends on how strongly it interacts with the Higgs field.

(Next time: Discovery of the Higgs)


Introduction to Particle Physics Part 4: Beyond the Standard Model

We know the Standard Model can’t be everything, as it only explains 3 of the fundamental forces of nature (the missing one being gravity). When we look out into the universe, we see that galaxies are spinning at the wrong speeds, that things that should be unstable are stable and that galactic clusters are bending light more than they should. This is strong evidence for a new form of matter that doesn’t interact with light – so called dark matter.

And if that isn’t crazy enough, the universe seems to be getting bigger at a faster rate (imagine throwing a ball in the air and it shooting upwards with ever increasing speed, totally counter intuitive). This is caused by something we call dark energy, which is a mysterious substance now believed to make up the vast majority of the energy content of our universe. As to what it actually is, we still don’t know.

Galaxy rotation curves - evidence for dark matter

Galaxy rotation curves – evidence for dark matter

So after all that hard work, it seems that the Standard Model only explains about 5% of the universe, oh well, it was nice trying. BUT WAIT! If there’s one thing Physicists are good at, it’s creating seemingly crazy ideas that just might turn out to be right…

One potential explanation of dark matter is that there is a whole new collection of super-heavy particles that we haven’t seen yet – the so called theory of supersymmetry. If we find evidence of such particles in particle colliders, it could even help us pave the way towards understanding if string theory is correct or not!

A Calabi-Yau manifold – welcome to the strange world of string theory

A Calabi-Yau manifold – welcome to the strange world of string theory

A recurring theme throughout our story was how things that once seemed disconnected are actually part of a deeper underlying truth, so it’s natural to wonder if one day we could unify all the fundamental forces into a single explanation – a theory of everything. The Large Hadron Collider may finally be the window to open our eyes to such new and exciting possibilities.

One thing is clear though: we stand on the precipice of perhaps the greatest change in our understanding of the universe – and the Higgs boson might just be the key to unlocking it all.

(Next time: What is the Higgs boson?)

Introduction to Particle Physics Part 3: Order from chaos – the Standard Model arrives

Having thought our knowledge of the makeup of the universe complete, physics turned its attention elsewhere. Or at least, until something was found in the 1930s that shocked everyone: a new type of particle streaming in from space – the muon (created when cosmic rays hit our atmosphere). In the years that followed, even more strange particles were discovered – over 80 by the 1960s! It was even said that the Nobel Prize should go to the person who didn’t discover a new particle that year! And to top it off, antimatter was discovered in 1931 (which can annihilate normal matter particles in a burst of energy) and mysterious ghost particles called neutrinos (that can travel through a light year of lead) were seen in 1956. It was like the periodic table all over again, some called it the ‘particle zoo’, but there were tantalising signs of a new pattern in amongst the madness…

Bewilderment abounded at all the new particles

Bewilderment abounded at all the new particles

This all changed in 1964, when Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig proposed that most of the particles observed could be built out of just three fundamental building blocks called quarks. Think of it like having 3 different types of Lego bricks – the particle zoo is then all the combinations you can build with those bricks. The three quarks were called: up, down and strange. At first, it wasn’t clear if they were just a nice way to understand the patterns, or if they were real physical objects, but over the following 10 years their existence was confirmed.

In the mid-1970s, a new theory was formulated to explain the fundamental building blocks of nature and the forces that affect them – the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Particles made of quarks are called hadrons (the most famous is the proton, made of two up quarks and one down quark). In addition to the quarks, there are particles called leptons (the electron is a familiar example), which differ from quarks in that they aren’t affected by the strong force. The Standard Model also explained that the fundamental forces are caused by the exchange of tiny particles we call bosons. Electromagnetism is caused by photons; the strong force is caused by gluons (which ‘glue’ the nucleus together), and the weak force is caused by the W and Z particles.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics

The Standard Model of Particle Physics

Over the following decades, 3 more quarks were discovered, the last being the top quark in 1995. The quarks and leptons seem to fit neatly into 3 ‘generations’ (the columns above), but we still do not know why. Could this structure be suggestive of a deeper theory, just like with the periodic table?

With the discovery of the Higgs boson (which explains why the W and Z have mass whilst photons and gluons do not) in 2012, the Standard Model is finally complete. But the story of Particle Physics is far from complete; we have learned by now that it’s dangerous to think we know everything…

(Next time: Beyond the Standard Model)

Introduction to Particle Physics Part 2: What holds the world together?

How many forces can you think of? At school you might have heard about pushing, pulling, lift, drag, friction and perhaps the more exotic electric and magnetic forces. But what if I told you that all of these were the same? In fact, everything we see and experience in our day to day lives, except for gravity, can be attributed to a single force of nature – electromagnetism.

In the early 1800s, a number of ground-breaking experiments carried out by people such as Michael Faraday discovered that electricity could make magnetism, and – incredibly important for our modern world – magnetism could be used to make electricity. In 1861, a brilliant Physicist called James Clerk Maxwell unified the two forces together, and in doing so explained that light itself is nothing more than a dancing intertwined mixture of changing electric and magnetic fields. When we push on a wall, the electrons in our hands repel the electrons in the wall – creating the force we feel. All of Chemistry, Biology, even life itself, were understood to be due to a single force of nature. This was one of the greatest triumphs in Physics; the first theory of almost everything.


An Electromagnet – electricity creating magnetism

But all was not well with just electromagnetism and gravity alone, can you guess why? If we examine the nucleus of any atom, then we see a mixture of positively charged and neutral particles. But wait, if positive charges repel then why don’t they fly away from each other? This thought baffled physicists for decades, leading to the proposal of an entirely new force of nature: the strong force. When we say strong, we mean really strong: the force between just two protons is enough to hold the entire weight of a small child!

An atomic nucleus

An atomic nucleus – everyone knows protons are red, right?

Excellent, reality is complete once again! Oh wait, there’s the minor problem that in the 1930s neutrons were seen turning into protons during radioactive decay… No worries, Enrico Fermi came along and proposed a new force of nature, the weak force, to explain the observation. Whilst it may sound feeble, it’s actually this force that allows the Sun to change hydrogen into helium (helium has two neutrons whilst the hydrogen nucleus is just made of a proton, so something must turn some protons into neutrons). Importantly, the weak force makes this process go slow enough for life on our planet Earth to be possible – if it was much stronger then the Sun would have long since used all its fuel.

Physics had reached a turning point; everything in the universe was understood to be made of 3 sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons), interacting with each other by the 4 fundamental forces of nature. But things are not so simple, as the universe had other plans in store for us…

(Next time: Order from chaos – the Standard Model arrives)


Introduction to Particle Physics Part 1: What is the world made of?

(This is the first in a 4-part introductory series on Particle Physics, a new part will be released daily after November 26th)

Our view of the composition of the world has changed remarkably over the centuries. By the middle of the 1800s, 60 different substances called elements had been discovered, out of which the entire world was thought to be made. Each element was believed to be completely different from all the rest, though no one knew why at the time. However, in the 1860s a number of brilliant scientists began to spot patterns that allowed the elements to be grouped together into a single structure – the periodic table of the elements. For the first time, we had an ordered structure hinting that there could be a common explanation behind these building blocks.

The periodic table of the elements

The periodic table of the elements

In 1897, a huge breakthrough was made when JJ Thompson discovered a brand new fundamental particle – what we now call the electron. This was followed in 1911 with Ernest Rutherford’s ‘planetary model’ of the atom, with a dense positively charged nucleus (made of particles called protons) surrounded by orbiting negatively charged electrons. There was a missing ingredient though, as some atoms of the same element were observed to be heavier than others. The final piece of the puzzle came in 1932, when J. Chadwick discovered a new particle with no charge – the neutron. And with that discovery, we finally had an explanation for all the elements in the periodic table: each element has a different number of protons, and the reason they behave   differently is that they have different numbers of electrons. Elements were no longer the basic building blocks; the number of fundamental particles had been reduced to just 3!

The planetary model of the atom

The planetary model of the atom – nucleus not to scale, it’s 10,000 times smaller in real life!

But even before it was complete, the simple planetary model was already being replaced by a better theory of nature: the Quantum Theory. This solved many of the great problems facing Physics in the 1920s, but it faced much opposition due to its counter-intuitive nature. Quantum Mechanics allows particles to be in many places at once, objects to pass through solid walls and things to pop in and out of existence from empty space! It tells us that almost all of the matter making up our world is actually empty space – a deep insight into how reality can surprise us. But the surprises didn’t stop there, oh no, this was just the beginning…

Electron clouds - what atoms actually look like!

Electron clouds (orbitals) – what atoms actually look like!

(Next time: what holds the world together?)