May 4, 2012 at 5:08 PM ET
The prime target for the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider is discovery and study of the Higgs boson — but what the heck is the Higgs, and what's it supposed to do? PHD Comics' Jorge Cham explains the quest in an animated cartoon that draws upon the expertise of Daniel Whiteson, a particle physicist from the University of California at Irvine who's working at Europe's CERN research center.
The Higgs boson, sometimes referred to as the "God Particle," is thought to be the force-carrier for a field that endows subatomic particles with varying values of mass. British physicist Peter Higgs and others theorized that it must exist to fill out a gap in physics' Standard Model of particle physics, but it hasn't yet been detected. Scientists expect it to turn up at the LHC, or else they might have to go back to the drawing boards and rework the Standard Model.
Almost two decades ago, Britain's science minister challenged experts to come up with an everyday explanation for the way the Higgs worked, and physicist David Miller came up with a comparison to Margaret Thatcher making her way through a crowded cocktail party. Whiteson and Cham use the analogy of marbles rolling across a floor, which works, too. Check out the big-format animated version on the PHD Comics Web site or on Vimeo.
If physicists at the LHC get their way, the discussion of the Higgs boson could get a lot less theoretical by the end of this year, thanks to the increase in power levels and data return from the LHC and its particle detectors. However, Nature's Geoff Brumfiel reports today that the readings from hundreds of trillions of collisions are piling up so fast that the computers are having a hard time keeping up with the analysis. He writes that all those collisions are growing into a "thick fog" that threatens to obscure the signature of the elusive Higgs. Researchers are using clever computational techniques to separate the wheat from the chaff, data-wise, and are prepared to dial back the collision rate if necessary.
If it sounds as if the physicists have it rough, just imagine how the particles must feel. That's exactly what animator Karen Cheung, Oxford physicist Alan Barr and their colleagues did in a cartoon that was created for the Oxford Sparks Web portal. Enjoy!
More about the Higgs and the LHC:
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