Editor's Note: This article originally published in July 2012 when scientists discovered a subatomic particle that could be the Higgs boson.
Have you noticed all the buzz surrounding the Higgs boson? Do you have any idea what it is or what it means? You're not alone.
Let me help you brush up just in time for CERN's big announcement on July 4, 2012. What does the Higgs particle have to do with bombs and giraffes? You'll have to click to find out. And join the conversation by leaving a comment below. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
Hey guys. I'm Cara Santa Maria. So, if your Twitter feed has looked anything like mine lately, you know about the buzz surrounding the announcement coming out of CERN on July 4. CERN, of course, is the lab near Geneva that houses the Large Hadron Collider. It's looking like this one is going to be big. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the words "Higgs boson" in the last 24 hours. Physicists have been looking for the Higgs boson since the standard model was fleshed out in the ‘70s (more on that later). But Peter Higgs himself is apparently being flown to Geneva just for this announcement. You do the math.
So what the hell is the Higgs boson anyway? You've probably heard people call it the "God particle." I hate that name. It's a lazy device used by journalists to give it meaning. But it's the wrong meaning. So we're going to avoid it.
Anyway, back to the Higgs. Well, a boson is a type of particle, like a quark or a photon. Particles are really small. They make up the stuff that makes up all the stuff in the universe. The Higgs specifically explains, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this conversation, how elementary particles like electrons have mass.
As of July 3, 2012, the Higgs boson is still hypothetical. If you go online to learn about it, there's some really good stuff available, but a lot of it is pretty dense. I've got to be honest. I don't really understand its Wikipedia page. See, my background is neuroscience, so when I get to write about physics, especially really big important concepts in physics, I'm just as excited to learn about what's going on as I am afraid that I'll screw it up when I try to put it on paper or explain it in a video. So, I'm going to lean on my trustiest of literary devices here, the metaphor:
Imagine that you work on a bomb squad, and you've been called to the scene of a massive explosion. Now, it's your job to figure out what was in that bomb, but the only evidence you have is in tiny pieces strewn all over a city block.
Most of the time, you find a bunch of burned up gook that doesn't really tell you much of anything, but once in awhile, you strike gold. There's a piece of the bomb's casing, a chunk of the timer, evidence of the explosives, the detonation device. As you find the components among the rubble, you start to piece together a picture of what the bomb looked like before it exploded. You map out a model of the bomb.
After a bunch of work, you figure out, more or less, what that model is. You've found evidence of all of its working parts, except one. One wire would be needed for this special bomb to have come together the way you think it did, to trigger this specific explosion. You pretty much know that the bomb works the way you think it does. The model makes sense. The wire is probably there--you just haven't found it yet.
That's the Higgs boson: the wire you haven't been able to find. Physicists are pretty sure it's there. In fact, if the standard model is accurate, it has to be there. Finding it only confirms what they already know. And although it's a critical component, it's not the central component, no more than the wire is the central component of your bomb. It's just the only fundamental piece that hasn't been found yet.
But why is this important? Well, that's another question altogether. And I don't think it's satisfying to read over and over and over that the discovery of the Higgs boson will confirm the standard model and further support the quantum mechanical theory of almost everything. Almost, meaning that the current standard model can't explain gravity (but that's a conversation for another day).
But here's what's really cool.
If the Higgs is discovered but it has properties outside of what physicists hypothesized, it could shed light on that whole rectifying quantum mechanics with general relativity thing. Maybe. At least it would open our eyes to new possibilities in particle physics that haven't even been dreamed of before.
There's a good chance that we would eventually find that wire and it would be just that, a wire. And we'd all go, look the wire fits! Our model of the bomb works! Let's all go out for pizza! (In case you've lost interest already, the wire is the Higgs. Come on, stay with me here.) But what if we found the wire, and we found out that it has some crazy properties that we've never seen before in our lives? What if the wire made electricity flow backward, or I dunno, what if it was filled with liquid candy?
I mean, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction and it takes observing something fantastic to know it could even exist at all. The first time we saw a giraffe, we were like "holy crap! How could that thing be alive? How could its little heart possibly work hard enough to get blood all way up that neck to its brain?" Nobody could have hypothesized a giraffe. It just doesn't seem physiologically possible. Now we know it is. It's commonplace.
Sorry about the mixed metaphors. You started off on a bomb squad and now you're discovering giraffes. But really, you're trying to see through the brilliant eyes of a theoretical particle physicist. You're trying to find the Higgs boson in an effort to understand the fundamental laws of nature, the laws that govern the universe as we know it. And that's pretty damn cool.
Do you have a better analogy? I could use a little help here. Send it to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comment right here on The Huffington Post. Who knows, maybe we'll feature it on the page once we hear the big news. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
The video below is a brilliant explanation of the Standard Model by Henry Reich of Minute Physics. You can subscribe to his YouTube channel here.