Higgs Boson - Public Discussion - Media Explanations and Analogies

Media Explanations and Analogies

There has been considerable public discussion of analogies and explanations for the Higgs particle and how the field creates mass, including coverage of explanatory attempts in their own right and a competition in 1993 for the best popular explanation by then-UK Minister for Science Sir William Waldegrave and articles in newspapers worldwide.

An educational collaboration involving an LHC physicist and a High School Teachers at CERN educator suggests that dispersion of light – responsible for the rainbow and dispersive prism – is a useful analogy for the Higgs field's symmetry breaking and mass-causing effect.

Symmetry breaking
in optics
In a vacuum, light of all colours (or photons of all wavelengths) travels at the same velocity, a symmetrical situation. In some substances such as glass, water or air, this symmetry is broken (See: Photons in matter). The result is that light of different wavelengths appears to have different velocities (as seen from outside).
Symmetry breaking
in particle physics
In 'naive' gauge theories, gauge bosons and other fundamental particles are all massless – also a symmetrical situation. In the presence of the Higgs field this symmetry is broken. The result is that particles of different types will have different masses.

Matt Strassler uses electric fields as an analogy:

Some particles interact with the Higgs field while others don’t. Those particles that feel the Higgs field act as if they have mass. Something similar happens in an electric field – charged objects are pulled around and neutral objects can sail through unaffected. So you can think of the Higgs search as an attempt to make waves in the Higgs field to prove it’s really there.

A similar explanation was offered by The Guardian:

The Higgs boson is essentially a ripple in a field said to have emerged at the birth of the universe and to span the cosmos to this day ... The particle is crucial however: it is the smoking gun, the evidence required to show the theory is right.

The Higgs field's effect on particles was famously described by physicist David Miller as akin to a room full of political party workers spread evenly throughout a room: the crowd gravitates to and slows down famous people but does not slow down others. He also drew attention to well-known effects in solid state physics where an electron's effective mass can be much greater than usual in the presence of a crystal lattice.

Analogies based on drag effects, including analogies of "syrup" or "molasses" are also well known, but can be somewhat misleading since they may be understood (incorrectly) as saying that the Higgs field simply resists some particles' motion but not others' – a simple resistive effect could also conflict with Newton's third law.

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