Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Readers Still Puzzled by the Higgs Boson

Physicist Paul Halpern takes a stab at some of the best reader questions posed about the Higgs boson.

Readers Still Puzzled by the Higgs Boson

Higgs (the cat) and I got a great response to our attempt to explain the Higgs boson. Several readers were still puzzled and asked some thoughtful questions. I thought they deserved answers, so I asked physicist Paul Halpern to take a stab at them. Paul is a professor at the University of the Sciences and he’s a great physics popularizer, having authored a number of outstanding books for the lay public. His latest will come out in September. The title is Edge of the Universe: A Voyage to the Cosmic Horizon and Beyond

Here’s the first question:

Reader: Thank you Higgs, but I'm still baffled.  Is a boson a type of quark?  And if we're talking about a "wave" the wave is measured by it's boundries but it takes something to be the boundries, so what are the boundries composed of in a Higgs Wave if not Higgs Bosons?  With them being so "flighty" how would a wave hold any shape.  It would be a constantly changing thing, impossible to measure.

Higgs, I am very confused.  Your piece took a lot of CAThectic work to present and I thank you (and Why Evolution is True for leading me to your article)  It is clearer than it was but I still have a large question mark in my head.

Halpern: No, a boson is not a type of quark.  Rather it is a category of particles based upon the rules for how they group together.  Particles can be divided according to their clustering preferences into two types:  bosons and fermions.  In essence, bosons are far more sociable than fermions as they can huddle in unlimited numbers within the same quantum state.  Fermions, in contrast,  stick to the rule of only one per quantum state. 

Waves are not particularly "flighty."  They are perfectly described by the equations of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory.  In other words they have definite shapes that evolve over time according to well defined rules.  However, the weird thing about quantum physics is that when we try to measure physical properties of a particle such as position or velocity, its quantum wave is said to "collapse" into a state corresponding to a certain value of that quantity.  The collapse is probabilistic, with the chances depending on the wave's shape.  In short, while in quantum physics the positions, velocities, and other physical properties of particles have probabilistic features, the underlying waves matching those particles are well-defined things.  We just can't access the waves themselves directly--they are the "ghostly" operators behind the particle world we observe.

And the Second Question
Reader: I'm an over 80 yrs. guy who had a father who was a high school. chemistry/physics teacher. So, I've lived w/ the terms atoms, molecules, elements, ergs, energy, symbols, valences, particles, for a long time. I'm also a devoted reader of the "stuff" you write for the Inky.
Just now got around to your piece on the Higgs boson. Fascinating reading!!.
Where I get bogged down in this realm of sub-atomic particles is the term "particle". What is it? A unit of matter? Then what is matter? Is it a unit of energy? I can conceive of, for example, a unit of energy being accelerated to the speed of light squared then becoming a unit of mass. But before that happens somewhere the Higgs particle has become part of the entanglement. What do you think gives?

Halpern: One can define a particle as a distinct entity with a certain set of features such as charge, spin (a quantum property related to how it interacts with magnetism), rest mass (inherent mass when the particle is not moving).  While the rest mass of a massive particle is theorized to have been bestowed by its interaction with the Higgs, its relativistic mass results from the its motion.  According to Einstein's mass/energy equivalency mass and energy are two forms of the same things.  When a particle speeds up, its acquired energy converts into relativistic mass and it becomes heavier.

Me: I thought these answers were excellent - clear, complete and accessible. One of the upsides of blogging is that it offers a chance to fill the gaps in my reporting – and to have readers help me identify those gaps. Thanks to Paul Halpern and thank you to the readers with questions.

 

 

 

 

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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