I supposed by now everybody has heard about CERN’s announced likely discovery of the Higgs particle.
Well, OK, “everybody” is probably an exaggeration. In a very recent Pew survey, only 55% of those asked knew that the Supreme Court had upheld almost all of the Affordable Care Act (also known as the health care reform law and “Obamacare”), despite this having been one of the most heavily covered and discussed news stories of recent years. For that matter, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has pretty consistently found fewer than one percent (!!) of Americans surveyed have been able to answer correctly just 10 very basic questions about the law. Half the individual questions were answered correctly by fewer than half of respondents, and one question by just 25%. (Take the quiz yourself on their website.) If that many people don’t follow major news about health care policy, there’s probably fewer still that keep up with science news.
On the other hand, if you’re among the handful reading this, you probably have heard mention of the probable Higgs discovery. If so, you might be interested in one of the better articles I’ve seen on the subject, one on the Slate website that includes among other things a compilation of nifty explanations and analogies for the Higgs field and the Higgs particle.
In one of the more appealing analogies, Einstein enters a crowded party and tries to make his way across the room, but he has trouble building up any headway because of all the party-goers who want to talk to him. (He might have trouble slowing down or changing direction, too, because his fans are moving along with him.) A less celebrated physicist arrives and finds it much easier to maneuver. Occasionally the party-goers cluster together without any newcomer to the party, maybe to listen to a joke.
The party is the Higgs field. Einstein is a massive particle that interacts more strongly with the field and experiences considerable inertia. The less-well-known physicist is a less massive particle. The delay is inertia (resistance to a change of speed or direction). The cluster of party-goers is a Higgs particle.
The Higgs particle is classified as a boson rather than a fermion. Fermions and bosons are different groups of particles, with bosons obeying one set of quantum mechanical rules and fermions another. Since the Higgs is often called the “Higgs boson,” some people suppose that “boson” is someone’s name and hence capitalize it and pronounce it like “boatswain.” It’s really pronounced “BO-zahn” and is named for Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, a remarkable person who was a scholar and teacher in a number of fields.