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The Higgs boson explained

A representation of the Higgs boson particle.


As we all know, today King’s College London is celebrating the achievement of alumnus Peter Higgs who has received the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics. Professor Higgs has been awarded this prestigious honour following the discovery of the famous Higgs boson particle on 4 July 2012 in the CERN Laboratory in Switzerland. He theorised its existence in 1964. This particle is most commonly known as the ‘God Particle’.

Now the question is: What is this ‘God Particle’? What does it do and why is it so important? To answer these questions, first we have to understand what a boson is, and to understand that, we need to know about something called a standard model.

In terms of particle physics, standard model is a theoretical model that describes how our cosmos works. It states that our universe is made up of twelve different matter particles and four universal forces. The matter particles include six quarks and six leptons. Quarks make up the subatomic particles, protons and neutrons, while leptons include electrons and neutrinos, which are neutral counterparts of electrons. The four forces are gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak. (Here the words ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ not only act as attributes but are also the names of these forces).

Now to explain what a boson is. A boson is a corresponding carrier or transfer particle for each of the four fundamental forces described above. We might think of forces as non-tangible entities but in fact, they are as real as the matter itself. Bosons transfer the forces to matter. It is like converting a non-tangible entity to a tangible one. For example, the boson that transfers electromagnetic force to matter is the good old photon which we are all quite familiar with.

Physicists think that the Higgs boson particle has a similar but much more important function. This ‘God Particle’ is thought to transfer mass itself while other bosons only transfer force. Now things get a bit complicated. According to the standard model, matter cannot just inherently acquire mass without the presence of something like Higgs boson. That means all particles have no inherent mass which would mean that nothing in the universe has mass, but that’s not a problem at all. The particles can acquire mass by passing through a particular field. Now, you must be wondering, where did this field come from? This mysterious field is the Higgs field. So everything that acquires mass, acquires it by interacting with the Higgs field, which surprisingly enough, occupies the whole universe.

In simple words, the carrier particle for the force known as the Higgs field is the Higgs boson which transfers mass. So with all that scientific explanation, let’s conclude this piece with a little joke: A Higgs boson particle walks into a church and says, ‘You can’t have mass without me!’



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