IN ONE sentence: what is the Higgs? It is a particle that gives mass to some particles, but not to others
Physicists yearn for the most succinct and precise description of the universe and have distilled its essence down to a few basic components. All matter is constructed from a small number of fundamental particles, such as the electron, whose behaviour is determined by a brief set of rules best described as forces. All the features of the universe are determined by the interplay of these particles and forces.
One of the greatest breakthroughs of the Victorian era came when Michael Faraday and James Clerk-Maxwell explained the relationship between electricity and magnetism. Since then these two forces have been understood as aspects of a single electromagnetic force. The implications have been profound. We take for granted that we have electricity on tap. In short, the modern world would not exist if it were not for the unification of the electric and magnetic forces by Faraday and Maxwell.
The structure of matter is now understood in terms of just four forces: gravity and electromagnetism, both of which are familiar to us, plus two nuclear forces that operate over very short distances and are known as the strong force and the weak force. The strong force holds the nucleus of an atom together.
The weak force is very different, but without it the stars would not shine and we would not be here to gaze up at them. The weak force works like an alchemist, changing one type of atom into another. This is exactly what happens within stars. The sun generates its energy output by transforming hydrogen into helium. Even bigger stars convert helium into heavier atoms before blasting themselves apart in supernova explosions that disperse these atoms into space, forming gas clouds that later condense into new generations of stars and planets. We are made of this stardust! Our atoms were forged in the stars.
Physicists believe they are on the verge of performing a feat comparable to that of Faraday and Maxwell, by reducing the number of forces from four to three. This is where the Higgs comes in, as key to the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces into a single electroweak force. It gives mass to some of the particles that transmit the electroweak force, but not the others. The ones that become heavy produce the “weak” part of the force, and the others produce the “electromagnetic” part.
This is a critical step in producing a universe with the right properties for the emergence of complex entities, such as living organisms like us. The existence of the Higgs will almost certainly be confirmed by physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider later this year. What the long-term implications are, no-one knows.
• Higgs Force by Nicholas Mee is published by Lutterworth Press, priced £15.