13 December 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “50/50 Odds the LHC Will Discover the Higgs Boson”

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Neil deGrasse Tyson is Director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and has done several NOVA specials for PBS.

Here is the last part of my interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson from earlier this month. I almost didn’t ask this question, but it elicited a fabulous answer about the nature of scientific discovery.

What is the Higgs boson you ask?

Here is my explanation, and keep in mind, I’m a meteorologist not a particle physicist! I don’t even know enough about it to be dangerous. Few people other than particle physicists do!

Physics in the early 21st century has reached the level where the questions being asked are those a second grader would ask. Don’t laugh. I visit a lot of schools and civic groups, and I rarely get a question about atmospheric science that stumps me.

Except by a young child. Young kids still ask basic questions that adults would never think to ask!

So here is a question for you. Why do neutrons, and protons and electrons have weight? Photons don’t. The particles that carry electromagnetic radiation travel at the speed of light and are totally mass-less. Why? What gives some things mass and others none?

It’s a second grade question, and that is why it’s so difficult! Many physicist think the answer is the Higgs field and the Higgs Boson. A boson is a subatomic force carrying particle.

The Large Hadron Collider, and the hunt for the elusive Higgs boson has captured the imagination of some great cartoonists. This one is from the great science cartoon site XKCD.com

Physicists are trying to find out of this particle exists. The lifetime of a Higgs boson is a tiny fraction of a millionth of a second! It then decays into particles that we do know about!

The best guess right now on what makes things have weight is based on a theory first postulated by Peter Higgs in 1964. His theory, and that of many others, has led to what is called the standard model.

The standard model describes the particles that make up the universe very well. It covers the 4 fundamental forces that control everything! The Higgs is the one missing particle in the model.

Here are the 4 fundamental forces:

1. The STRONG force that holds the protons and neutrons together in atoms.

2. The WEAK nuclear force. It’s what causes radiation, and may have had a major role in the rapid expansion of the Universe after the “big bang”.

3. ELECTROMAGNETISM- It’s what holds that magnet on your refrigerator.

4. The weakest of all of them, GRAVITY. If you don’t believe it’s that weak, consider that fridge magnet. That tiny magnet is holding the gravity of the ENTIRE Earth at bay.

It’s now known that before the universe cooled to a few hundred billion degrees, the weak force and electromagnetism were one in the same. Many physicists think that if you go back to the instant after the big bang, the 4 forces were one.

The Real LArge Hadron Collider is outside of Geneva on the border between France and Switzerland.

The standard model does not include gravity, and from what I understand, it will not quite merge the 4 fundamental forces. The Higgs boson will complete the model but not fix the 4 forces problem.

A newer theory called supersymmetry may do the job. No one knows for sure. There may be a type of Higgs boson that would indicate the super symmetry theory is how nature works. Again, no one knows. They just have suppositions based on some pretty good evidence.

That is why the Large Hadron Collider was built. To find the Higgs, IF it’s there to be found. Peter Higgs may be wrong, but so far everything the theories of the worlds greatest scientists have come up with say it should be there. The Higgs theory led to the predictions of two other particles, and they HAVE been found.

Astrophysicist Brian Cox in the UK has a great summary of the standard model and the LHC in his recent TED talk. I posted that talk awhile back here. He also has a great explanation of what the Higgs bosun does; assuming it exists of course.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking has bet an American physicist 100 dollars that the Higgs will never be found! This led me to ask Neil Tyson his opinion on the issue.


If this has peaked your curiosity, there are some really excellent books that explain the search for the holy grail of physics. They are written for the general public, and they exclude all the complex math. My favourite is PRESENT AT THE CREATION by Amir Aczel of Boston University. Frank Close of Oxford University has some excellent books as well. His book on Neutrinos is a must read for the super geek in your household.

A fabulous book on the Higgs bosun in particular is MASSIVE by Ian Sample.

For those who don’t panic at some basic algebra, then Frank Close’s THE NEW COSMIC ONION looks really good. I’m getting it for Christmas, if my wife reads this post.