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Q&A: Prof. Jonas Mureika on the Higgs Boson

mureikaOn July 4, CERN scientists reported that they discovered a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson, sometimes named the "God" particle. The particle has been the subject of more than 50 years of research looking into how matter attains mass.

We spoke to Jonas Mureika, associate professor of physics at Loyola Marymount University, about his insights on the discovery and what it means to the field of physics.

What does this discovery mean for how we understand the world and the field of physics?

It’s certainly a monumental milestone for physics. This is the first major discovery of a new particle since 1995 when they confirmed the existence of the top quark. Moreover, it’s the final ingredient to be discovered in what’s known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics.  This will teach us new things about our understanding of matter, and why it is the way it is.  It’s a first glimpse into a time in the universe — just 0.000000000001s after the Big Bang — that we know hardly anything about. I think it also provides is a renewed hope of inspiring another generation of people to pursue a career in science.

So what exactly is the Higgs Boson?

To understand the Higgs, you first need to know something about the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This framework was formulated roughly 40 years ago as a way of explaining a handful of particles we had and how they interacted with one another. Bosons are generally what we call force carriers, things that allow other particles to exert forces on one another. For example, when you rub a balloon on your head and then press it against the wall, it sticks because of an electromagnetic field. The balloon and the wall are said to be interacting by exchanging “photons,” which are the bosons that carry electromagnetic force. The photon is odd in that doesn’t have mass.

Similarly, there are bosons that mediate other fundamental forces. The W and Z particles, for example, carry what’s called the “weak nuclear force” that governs nuclear decay (radiation). Unlike the photon, these two bosons have mass, but they’re slightly different: roughly 89 and 90 times the mass of a proton. In the 1980s, we discovered the W and Z at CERN and furthermore confirmed the belief that in the very early universe, both they and the photon were massless and essentially indistinguishable from one another! But how could they have originally been the same, and suddenly become particles with different masses?

In the 1960s, Peter Higgs and some of his contemporaries worked out a mathematical way of predicting the mass of a particle by its interaction with what became known as the Higgs field (similar to the electromagnetic field between the balloon and the wall).  In a nutshell, when different massless particles come in contact with the Higgs field, they “stick” to it to varying degrees. Each of the particles then acquires a different mass. The Higgs mechanism helps us predict how much mass will be distributed to each of these particles.

What are the next steps we can expect?

This was a first great first step. There are many different versions of the Higgs and some predict very different things. Over the next couple of years, the main thrust will be to characterize this “alleged” Higgs particle and see whose theory it matches the best.  

But perhaps the most exciting thing is the Higgs is just the first in a line of possible new discoveries at the LHC. Some of the other things we’re looking for include other new particles that arise from a theory called “Supersymmetry,” some of which might be candidates for dark matter. And my favorite item in the laundry list is the potential to discover the existence of more — or possibly less — than three spatial dimensions in the Universe.

Do you think this discovery will ignite the debate over religion and science?

There are jokes in physics community that the  Higgs particle was nicknamed the “God” particle because you can’t hold mass without God. The reason it has been called the “God” particle in popular vernacular is because the notion has been conveyed that the Higgs particle creates other particles through some fundamental all-encompassing power by giving them mass. While somewhat true, the label seriously overinflates what the Higgs should be. I think this idea will abate in the public discourse when more people understand what the particle is and what it means in relation to the bigger picture.