Ep. 716: The God**** Particle – Remembering Peter Higgs

Last week, we learned about the death of Peter Higgs, a physicist and discoverer of the particle that bears his name. The Large Hadron Collider was built to find and describe the particle. Today, we’ll look back at the life of Peter Higgs and his particle.


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:05] Astronomy cast episode 716 The God Particle remembering Peter Higgs. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know about how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pam. How are you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:01:28] I am doing well, I, I am still trying to get my sleep back on schedule after having a whole bunch of our Cosmic Quest community mods come out and hang out during the eclipse week and all the events around that. It was a tremendous event, and it was so good to see so many people face to face, including some I had never met in person. At one point we had 14 humans and four spare dogs in the house during the, lead up to the eclipse as everyone was prepping in house. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:01] Can absorb that. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:02] It can, although keeping the dogs separated is necessary. Was was a fascinating game of gates. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:11] But we were off last week because we were enjoying the eclipse and victory for both of us. Yes, both saw totality clear skies. It was perfect. So yay us! 

Pamela Gay [00:02:25] We did it. We did it. No need to ever travel again for an eclipse. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:30] No way. I want to see war. But it was it was amazing. And I think for everybody out there who’s listening to this, if you did get a chance to see it, congratulations. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, the the. Cosmic geometry continues, and you will get more chances in the future and some fun travel ideas. So. So keep trying out there and. Yeah, yeah. I’m so glad that we got a chance to see it after 2017. Yeah, I didn’t get a chance to see it. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:05] We tried. We tried. The universe mocked us. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:08] Yes. Last week, we learned about the death of Peter Higgs, a physicist and the discoverer of the particle that bears his name. The Large Hadron Collider was built to find and describe the particle. Today, we’ll look back at the life of Peter Higgs and his particle. All right. Pamela. What? Who is Peter Higgs? 

Pamela Gay [00:03:29] He was a British theoretical physicist. Who? Every single thing I found to read described him as shy, as filled with creativity and curiosity and. Just not wanting to be a famous person, but willing to explain science to anyone and break down the concepts. As much as it was needed to help them understand. He’s not someone I ever met, but after all the reading I did for this episode, I really am sad I never met him. There aren’t enough personable theoretical physicists who actually can break things down, because most of the time they’re just working at such a high level that bringing it down to even the level of an observational astronomer isn’t something that happens. 

Fraser Cain [00:04:26] But let’s talk about his, I don’t know, discovery. His his what? You call it his background. His. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, his background, but also leading up to his. Ma’am. What’s the right word? I guess his theory of that there should be a particle that connects mass to the universe. So? So how did. Was he the person that figured this out? 

Pamela Gay [00:04:55] So he was one of them. And so. So basically, this is the story of everything working exactly the way it’s supposed to. He he went to a private school when he was in high school or a magnet school. I’m not sure quite what the right words are. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:12] Yeah, I know, it’s like public school means not what you think he does in private schools. I mean, what you think it means. 

Pamela Gay [00:05:16] So he wanted England now? 

Fraser Cain [00:05:18] Right, right. So did did he go to the one where the regular people go to? Or the one where people pay for them to go? 

Pamela Gay [00:05:25] He went to the one that that Paul Dirac had gone to. And that’s the key point. Okay, is he went to the same, high school. I think that’s the closest explanation word. But Paul Dirac had graduated from well before him, but he knew about Paul Dirac because he was an alumni, and he decided that he wanted to follow in Paul Dirac’s footsteps and become a physicist. He moved to the City of London so that he could go to a more exclusive, finishing off the rest of high school before starting university. And so this really starts by being this is someone who had a role model, and that role model inspired them to do great things with their life. So first of all, when I like this story already. Yeah. He then bounced around, did his undergraduate hitchhike for a while, fell in love with the city of Edinburgh while hitchhiking. Which which is just pleasing. It was is the 50s. It was safer back then. When got his PhD when he was 25, did the same thing that still happens today. He bounced around. He was a lecturer here, a lecturer there. And when he was 35, he submitted a paper to Physics Letters that outlined how maths, which at that point in time couldn’t be explained. Like everything we knew about particle physics at that point in time, said a lot of the key particles should not have any mass, but they have mass. And so there was this very deeply confusing issue. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:10] And at this point, I mean, there was the standard model of particle physics that had a lot of the bits and pieces already figured out. There was it. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:17] Wasn’t as complete. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:19] Right? Right. I mean, we knew about the proton, the neutron, the electron, but also the quarks and the various particles that the subatomic particles, some of which had been confirmed in with particle accelerators and others which hadn’t, but everyone just assumed they had to be. There was just a matter of time before they were found. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:38] And and so he was working in trying to understand how symmetries get broken, how you make space for mass to exist. And he put together a theory that brought together both the, the boson that would go on to hold his name, and a scalar field that permeated all of space and time. The particles couple went through that boson, and it’s through that coupling that objects end up having what we discern as mass in our laboratories. And the paper was soundly rejected. And I love this part of the story because he submits the work. The paper gets rejected from a journal that was published out of CERN. So like the laboratory that would eventually be the one that discovers the Higgs boson said, no science for you do not believe. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:39] Yeah. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:40] And he added one paragraph to the paper, submitted it to a different journal, Physics Review. And and it got published. Now here is where he is such an awesome human. So his work was not the only work on on trying to understand this. There are three different teams at the time that were all working on this at the same time, and throughout his entire life, he always gave credit to all the other teams. And so you see it called the Higgs field. You see it called by a variety of other different names. And he made sure every time he referred to it, he listed everyone involved, usually by an alphabet soup of all their names, which is about the nicest thing a human being could do. And in preparing for this episode, I was rewatching and I didn’t make it all the way through. But I was rewatching, Particle Fever, which is a documentary. 

Fraser Cain [00:09:53] That’s great documentary. 

Pamela Gay [00:09:54] Yeah, yeah, it’s by David Kaplan. It’s available. Not for streaming, but you can purchase it or rent it, pretty much everywhere. And he’s he’s not playing a major role in it. And so while they have all these other physicists where they’re like, this human only writes papers with three authors because Nobel Prizes can only go to three people. Peter Higgs is, like, shown crying when they find the well, I mean, he’s not doing this. He’s wiping away tears. But, like, Peter Higgs is just like they they found it. He’s so sweet, so nice. And they catch him crying, and everyone else is just like, oh. Because they weren’t the ones getting the Nobel Prize. And here he is the day. This is my favorite story so far. So, like, everyone knows when they’re going to be making the calls for the Nobel Prize. The people who are nominated often have an idea they don’t know who’s going to be the winner, but they know to stay home and stay next to the phone. And Peter Higgs went out for a walk and left his phone at home because he didn’t want to deal with it. And it was one of his neighbors. As he’s walking home, that lets him know, right, that you got the Nobel Prize in physics and it’s just awesome. 

Fraser Cain [00:11:12] So, you know, he had predicted this particle and the field and the interactions between these two. And I think that’s that’s the key. You know, it’s very easy to just say, oh, there’s got to be some field that contributes to mass. There’s got to be some particle that makes mass. But to recognize this connection between the particle, the boson and the field, and there’s some great analogies to describe how the Higgs boson would work. Do you have a do you have a favorite? 

Pamela Gay [00:11:42] I do, I read this initially in Scientific America back in the 90s. So the way to think about the the Higgs boson in the Higgs field is if you’re trying to walk through a room and you’re a nobody, you have no mass, you just fly through the room because there’s nothing slowing you down. You have nothing dragging you. You have nothing connecting. You zoom. You’re through the room. Now, if you have. A few friends, you might get slowed down because like, hey, how’s it going? Hey, great. How’s how’s how’s the trip? 

Fraser Cain [00:12:20] What do you think about this? Yeah. What do you think about this? Yeah. I want you to meet this person. 

Pamela Gay [00:12:25] And so this is someone who has or something that has a little bit of mass. They have a few bosons coupling them to the Higgs field, and this slows down their passage. Now, the more famous you are, or the more massive you are, the more you have dragging you down by coupling you to that field. And so more massive objects have a stronger coupling. They have more Higgs bosons tying them to that Higgs scalar field. And so there’s no direction to the field is just everywhere all the time. And, we all get stuck to it by these Higgs bosons. And I, for one, could do with a few fewer Higgs bosons. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:07] Right? But like Taylor Swift trying to move through that party and make no progress. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:12] And that is a massive particle. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:15] A very massive particle. Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. So so key predicts the particle predicts the field. But but how did this get translated into what is one of the greatest scientific experiments in human history? 

Pamela Gay [00:13:30] Well, this is a combination of really good promotion by another Nobel Prize winner and also the entire field, trying really hard to check all the boxes in the standard model, trying to find all the things. So first we have Leon Letterman, who won his Nobel Prize for work on neutrinos, who wrote a book that he intended to call the God four letter word, I’m not going to say on Air Particle. And his publisher was like, no, no, Leon, we cannot do that. And so the God four letter word that I’m not going to say on air particle, became the book The God particle. Right. And and what. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:16] It would be the it was the god damn particle, right? 

Pamela Gay [00:14:19] Yeah. Now you’re going to say the word that I. Yeah. That’s fine. You do it. Yeah, yeah. So, so, when Letterman was going to name his book The Goddamn Particle, his publisher was like, no, no, we cannot do that. And, and and one of the reasons it was called that is because it was so frustrating to find it’s such a massive particle. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:38] Right, right. So the name is not is not like its incredible purpose in the universe. It is just like it. How frustrating it’s been to find this thing that the most powerful particle accelerators, which have been trying to find it, have failed because they don’t have enough energy. You don’t have the right tools to get to this stupid, elusive particle. 

Pamela Gay [00:15:01] Yeah. And and then, of course, because early on, Letterman had done that, a lot of people were like, oh, we’re going to to make this the most important particle ever, because it is what gives the universe mass. And with mass, gravity can evolve all the things. And so it’s it’s not so much a back rename as a back rename where they, they gave it all the import after it had been done by a publisher trying to. Yeah. But I think that because of the book, because of the popularity of the idea, that probably helped with keeping the funding turned on to make this happen. So, so the idea that we needed to build bigger and bigger and bigger particle accelerators have been around for a while here in the United States. We’ve been trying to build the super collider, super colliding. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:59] Superconducting SuperCollider. 

Pamela Gay [00:16:00] Thank you in Texas. And then Congress canceled it after it had mostly been dug, after they had taken all of the land from the farmers via eminent domain, they sold the land to, real estate people who built McMansions, and they actually sold in the tunnel instead of using it for geologic research, which had been proposed. So that was just a hot mess. U.S was not going to find this particle. And and CERN was like, okay, we’re a multinational consortium. We have partners from nations that are all but at war with each other, and we’re still in the name of science going to use the wealth of all of these nations, the intellectual capabilities of all of these nations, to work together to build a. Accelerator capable of sending particles at higher and higher velocities. And collecting them in these instruments. Atlas being the key to finding the Higgs boson. And and full disclosure when I was a baby student at Michigan State University, I spent a summer weaving fiber for instruments for Atlas. Oh, wow. So, my skin cells are probably somewhere in Atlas. 

Fraser Cain [00:17:19] This is personal. 

Pamela Gay [00:17:21] Yeah, yeah. So I, I just, like, listened to audiobooks all summer and attach fibers very carefully over and over. Hundreds and hundreds of them. This is what undergraduates in physics do. But this is just an idea of how many members of the physics community in the astronomy community have been part of building this. There were thousands of students. There were hundreds of graduate students. There were probably hundreds of thousands, just fewer, hundreds working on all levels of this experiment, from the electronics to the optics to the control systems. It was a true, truly global endeavor to find the reason my bathroom scale makes me sad in the morning. 

Fraser Cain [00:18:12] Right? So let’s talk about the experiment then. What was the Large Hadron Collider at CERN? What was sort of some of the key parts to this experiment? 

Pamela Gay [00:18:24] So they needed to get a extremely large amount of energy, tens of electron volts, confined in the tiniest of volumes. And the reason they needed to do this is so that. That energy could then turn into the ever so briefly lived Higgs boson. So Higgs bosons have a mean lifetime, and I have to look at my screen for this. Of between 1.2 and 4.6 times ten to the -22 seconds. So 0.0, right? That zero 21 times. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:13] Right? 

Pamela Gay [00:19:14] 1.2 to 4.6. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:17] Right. That is a very tiny amount of time. A fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second. 

Pamela Gay [00:19:24] Yeah. So. So they not only needed to get a 125 giga electron volts divided by c squared, which is the crazy units that we use in particle physics of energy confined in one small area. They also had to have instruments capable of measuring the trails made by the particles created in that energy. Combine in that small area all at once. And so the way this was done was they were accelerating protons. They needed to get them going super, super fast. They needed to then make them go smash as you do. And then one of the biggest features of Atlas was layers upon layers of fiber optics of varying, kinds, with color sensitivities that would then be able to channel the energy through the photo multiplier tubes that could sense the light, the flickers of energy of these particles coming in and out of existence. And. They did it in there. What was amazing is there had been hints that this was the correct energy. There have been hints that things had previously been seen, at Fermi National Lab when they were running some of their high energy experiments. They had to turn off Fermi’s experiments while they were working on upgrading their things. Then they upgraded everything at CERN. CERN was the place that ultimately did the experiment, and it’s hoped with the next generation of of the CERN accelerator and all of its instruments, that they’ll be able to see more than just a signal created by these things, but they’ll actually start to be able to measure more and more of their properties and hopefully be able to start doing things like prove once and for all that the supersymmetric particles are or aren’t there, and find any particles that may or may not be dark matter. So it’s not that they did CERN just to find the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson helped. And Leon Letterman’s book popularizing the Higgs boson really helped. But this is fundamental physics. This this is what we do. We we go, okay, we have a theory. The theory says all these particles are going to exist. We’re now going to make sure all those particles actually exist, because if they don’t, the theory is wrong. Yeah. This was the last of the the core particles that should be discoverable. There’s a graviton out there that we probably will never find if it exists. But this was the last of the particles we knew we could find. If we could just turn the energy up to 11. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:22] Right, right. And and there’s, like, a real beauty to that. I mean, was it 2012? They announced the the findings, but but we had for a couple of years leading up to that, we knew that they were that they were on the right track. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:37] It was going on. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:38] With higher level signals. It was going to work. They’d found it. It was really a matter of exactly, you know, trying to pin down the mass of this, of this particle. But how did the physics community, I guess, how did Higgs I mean, you mentioned early on he he wiped away tears from his eyes. Yeah, yeah. So, so how did that sort of change his perspective on on what he had originally proposed. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:06] So, so he’s a shy human. So finding things like that wasn’t something I was able to do. He was the kind of person who showed up to these events, looked spectacularly happy in front of giant pictures of Atlas. And then when people were like, I don’t understand, he just explained the physics. This this was a human being that, as near as I can tell from everything I read, his true joy came in understanding our universe, having the theory proven true. But then it wasn’t all about, oh, look at me. It was, hey, let me explain the science to you. My favorite description was is he is someone whose shyness was overcome by explaining physics to others. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:53] That’s wonderful. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:54] It’s true. I wish I had met him, I really do. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:57] Yeah, yeah, that sounds amazing. So I guess what comes next? What do you think is his legacy for physics and the future of of particle accelerators? 

Pamela Gay [00:24:09] So he had some ideas on dark matter that that will either get proven or disproven. But mostly he’s been retired and following along for the past few years. And his legacy is all the particle physicists who inspired who he taught, who are going to be the humans working to figure out what is dark matter, what is dark energy? He worked as a professor at the University of Edinburgh. He got to be at the place he loved when he went hitchhiking, and he trained generations of students. And that, in a lot of ways, is the best legacy anyone could have, other than, of course, the Nobel Prize. 

Fraser Cain [00:24:50] I love the idea of an international physics community coming together to do this basic research work, too. Yeah, like on the one hand, the Higgs, you know, the the particle that interacts with the scalar field, that is the source of mass, the, you know, in the universe. Yeah, it seems very esoteric and and yet it is this basic building block of us to understand better the true nature of the cosmos. And who knows if there will ever be a practical use for it. But but we do know that we that we have one less mystery out there. 

Pamela Gay [00:25:36] And and let this also just be a lesson about history. Remembers the workers, the helpers. And this is a human who was one of three different collaborations who proposed what became the Higgs mechanism, the Higgs boson and the Higgs field. And, well, pretty much everyone in everything refers to them as Higgs boson, Higgs mechanism, Higgs field. He was like, no, he called it the a b e g h k prime t h mechanism for Anderson, Brout, it Guralnik Hagen, Higgs, kibble, and to Hooft, right, right. He gave credit to everyone every time. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:21] What a gentleman. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:22] So yeah. Be be the helper. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:25] Thank you, Peter Higgs. And thank you, Pamela. 

Pamela Gay [00:26:30] And and thank you to all the people out there who make this show possible. We would not be here without you. And I regret to say the names for this week were not listed. So I’m going to really, really hope that the names for April are good enough. And I’m going to read the April 3rd names, and I will make sure that everyone else who should have been read today, all of our $10 and up we break you across the month, people get. Acknowledged. So our $10 and up patrons whose names are going to be read are David Everson, Michael Proctor, John Faiz, Barry Gowan, Stephen Vai, Jordan Young, Jeannette Wang, Nano Phillips, Andrew Lester, Venkatesh Chaudhry, Brian Cagle, David Trog, Gerhard Gear hard Schweitzer, David Buzz parsec, Laura. Carlson, Robert. Plasma, les. Howard, Jack. Mudd, Joe. Holstein, Alexis. Gordon, doers, Richard. Drum, Adam, Annie’s Brown, Frank. Tippin, Greg Davis, William Andrews, and gold. And if you two would like to hear me stumble horribly over your name and be extremely grateful for you while doing it. Join at the $10 and up level. Thank you all. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:51] So thanks everyone. We’ll see you next week. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:53] And bye bye. Astronomy cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.