If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may have heard something about the possible discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle believed to be responsible for giving mass to things. The idea of the Higgs boson was first proposed by a group of scientists (including Peter Higgs, after which the particle is named) in the 1960s.
Before I go any further, let me offer a disclaimer: I do not really understand this stuff. My knowledge of science is pretty limited to the biology side of things. Tell me you’ve found something new about how a cheetah catches its food or a tree grows and you’ve already got me interested; subatomic particles, on the other hand, aren’t exactly my cup of tea. For example, consider this sentence from the Reuters article about the discovery:
Scientists see confirmation of his theory as accelerating investigations into the still unexplained “dark matter” they believe pervades the universe and into the possibility of a fourth or more dimensions, or of parallel universes. It may help in resolving contradictions between their model of how the world works at the subatomic level and Einstein’s theory of gravity.
Holy crap. What does half of that statement even mean? Theoretical physics makes me simultaneously roll my eyes, fall asleep, and feel like the stupidest person in the world. I just don’t get it. One of the main reasons I became a teacher was because I feel very strongly about the importance of making science accessible — if concepts can’t be explained in relatable terms, you shouldn’t expect anyone to stop what they are doing to listen. I’m not saying that the field of theoretical physics needs to be “dumbed down” necessarily, but these guys really need a crash course in how to make their field fit into the public consciousness. I feel like the possible discovery of the Higgs boson is one of the more important scientific findings of my life, but even after reading about it for the past few hours I still don’t have a great idea as to WHY that’s the case. Ugh.
With that being said, I figured that some people might be interested in knowing a little more about this news story, and if nothing else, writing about it might help me wrap my own head around the concept a bit more. Let’s get started.
What is the Higgs boson?
To start, it’s a subatomic particle. You’ve most likely heard of other subatomic particles before — electrons, protons, and neutrons to start, along with things like quarks and photons. Subatomic particles are divided up into two groups: composite particles, which are made up of smaller pieces, and elementary particles, which cannot be broken down further and are considered the basic building blocks of THE UNIVERSE. The Higgs boson is an example of this type of particle, and as previously mentioned is believed to give many of the other particles their mass. How, you may ask? Let me struggle through an explanation, I answer. Higgs bosons make up a giant field of particles called a Higgs field, which provides a sort of drag on particles as they move through it. Particles that don’t have much mass (like an electron) only interact with the field a little bit, while more massive particles interact with the field a lot more and get a lot more drag.
This great video clip describes the Higgs field as being kind of like water — some things, like a barracuda, can move through the water easily while others have a much harder time getting around. This clip is really worth a quick watch just to see what the narrator uses as an example of a massive particle, so allow me to indulge myself by sharing it here:
The problem with the Higgs boson is that while we think we know what it does, we, uh…actually haven’t found it yet (until now, maybe!). Scientists have been using particle accelerators (such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN) in order to look for it. Basically, you smash protons together and a bunch of little pieces fly out. Some of those pieces might be Higgs bosons, but they disappear so fast it’s hard to actually locate one. Before I explain things any more poorly than I already have, check out another video, this time by Ian Sample, for what I feel is a pretty good explanation (well, about as good as we can expect, considering how dense this subject matter can be) of just what a Higgs boson is and how people go about looking for one.
Did that make any sense?
I hope it did, at least a little bit. If nothing else, I think you can answer the question, “Why should anyone care about the Higgs boson?” in a pretty simple way that applies to all scientific discoveries: it helps us explain the way the world around us works. In the case of the Higgs boson, we are talking about the way the world works on a VERY fundamental level, which is why people are so excited about this potential discovery.
If you’re interested, and it would be awesome if at least a few of you out there were, there’s a lot more information out there about the Higgs boson. I can tell from the stats that WordPress gives me that not many people click on the links in my articles, but I’ll still provide some decent places to get started in your NEVER-ENDING QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE!
Don’t get me wrong. Science — and physics, in particular — is filled with bad naming conventions: The big bang was neither big nor a bang; the “color” of a quark or a gluon has nothing to do with what they actually look like; even “spin” has staggeringly less to do with a gyroscope than you might have at first guessed. And while the Higgs deserves our respect, “God Particle” is just going too far.
Seriously. What’s wrong with you people?
How to explain Higgs boson discovery (The Guardian)
For harassed, sleep-deprived parents: “If the constituent parts of matter were sticky-faced toddlers, then the Higgs field would be like one of those ball pits they have in the children’s play area at IKEA. Each coloured plastic ball represents a Higgs boson: collectively they provide the essential drag that stops your toddler/electron falling to the bottom of the universe, where all the snakes and hypodermic needles are.”
More than this, however, the Higgs field implies that otherwise seemingly empty space is much richer and weirder than we could have imagined even a century ago, and in fact that we cannot understand our own existence without understanding “emptiness” better. Readers of mine will know that as a physicist, I have been particularly interested in “nothing” in all of its forms and its relation to something—namely us. The discovery of the Higgs says that “nothing” is getting ever more interesting.
2. Our current understanding of physics would be confirmed:
“Since the mid-20th century, particle physicists have been developing a theory known as the Standard Model, which accounts for all the known forces and subatomic particles in the universe,” says Adam Mann at Wired. But because the Higgs has so far only been a theory, it’s served more as a placeholder in the Standard Model. If its existence is confirmed on Wednesday, by all indications the Higgs will weigh in at 125 gigaelectronvolts (geV), meaning “it sits exactly where the Standard Model expected it to be.” Finding it would be a “triumph,” says Michael Hanlon at Britain’s Daily Mail. “Nobels all round. Physics is ‘safe,’ at least from being found to be completely wrong.”
Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. And it affirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, like ourselves, is a result of flaws or breaks in that symmetry.
What’s the Matter with the Higgs Boson? (i09) – If you only read one of the articles, read this one!
I bring up all of these limitations to point out something important. You’ll occasionally read a comment by a physicist saying that in many ways it would be more interesting if we didn’t find the Higgs. The implication is that if we do find it, then we’ll have solved all of the big mysteries. I respectfully disagree. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to figure out how the whole puzzle fits together, and it would be really nice to finish up this particular piece.
You can’t beat it. Go ahead and try.
Curious how it works?
Sensor Fusion: High Speed Robots – Ishikawa Oku Laboratory
Today, rock-paper-scissors. Tomorrow? THE WORLD. I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
And the answer is…
Clearly the world is a much more mysterious place to me than you! People guessed it correctly almost immediately — the above picture is indeed of a Ferris wheel, in this case the largest Ferris wheel in the world: the Singapore Flyer.
How big is it?
Huge. At over 540 feet tall (about 42 stories), the Singapore Flyer is:
- almost three times taller than the Statue of Liberty (not including it’s base, although even when that is added in the Singapore Flyer is still well over 100 feet taller).
- 10 feet shorter than two Notre Dame cathedrals stacked on top of one another.
- over 200 feet taller than the Big Ben clock tower, which has a clock face almost 25 feet in diameter.
Check out the links in the above list! I tried to include pictures of those strcutures that also had people so you can get an idea of just how big this spinning wheel is.
My original intent for this post (and one of the reasons it has taken me so long to write it) was to talk about other huge structures in the world. While trying to find pictures of size comparisons between the Singapore Flyer and other, more familiar structures, I started to find out that there are huge Ferris wheels all over the place. Since 2008, the Singapore Flyer has been the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, despite several attempts to surpass it. In the above link, you can see that there appear to be three wheels bigger than the Singapore Flyer: the Great Berlin Wheel, the Great Dubai Wheel, and the Beijing Great Wheel (great creative naming, too!). All three are supposed to have been completed by now, but have been delayed for various reasons (the Great Dubai Wheel was cancelled altogether).
For some more context, check out this awesome picture from 1884 of the tallest buildings in the world. The Singapore Flyer is about 15 feet shorter than the tallest structure in the picture, the Washington Monument (which was the tallest building in the world for one year until it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower, which is now the second-tallest structure in France since it was knocked from its perch in 2004 by a big ol’ honking bridge – the Millau Viaduct. Do you see why it took me so long to write this post? I could read about huge buildings all day).
Wikipedia! For pretty much everything!
The recent discoveries of the fossilized remains of Titanoboa (a one-and-a-half ton 50-foot long snake) and a car-sized (OK, a smart car, but still) turtle recently got me thinking about ancient animals and just how big they got. Whenever I think about prehistoric times, extreme humidity and enormous lifeforms immediately come to mind. Giant sauropods eating from the treetops, as huge dragonflies flit around the backs of huge salamanders. Later, these huge organisms were replaced by huge mammals: mammoths, and ground sloths and vaguely rhinocerousy-looking creatures. Why was everything so big back then, and why is it so small and dinky and boring now?
To start, things today aren’t ALL small. We currently share this planet with the largest known animal in the history of Earth – the blue whale. There’s no reason that organisms couldn’t get huge again, given enough time and resources, right?
Why exactly were these organisms so big?
I have a couple of guesses!
My first thought is that it has something to do wit the humidity of the air. Organisms that live in aquatic environments can get much larger than their land-based counterparts because they have water to support their body weights. Perhaps excess humidity makes it easier to carry around increased bulk? After a little bit of research, this idea falls apart. The rainforest is home to a huge amount of diversity among living things, but very few of the animals in these areas get all that big. Another problem is locked up in the cells of these organisms.
During normal activity, cells generate heat. Larger organisms have more cells than smaller ones, and as a result they tend to have a lot more trouble getting rid of excess body heat as their cells go about their business. Therefore, animals (and people!) tend to be smaller or more slender in warmer climates. The largest land predators on the planet, the brown bear and polar bear, are great examples of this theory — being big is an advantage in cold climates, but possibly a hindrance in warmer locales. There are exceptions to the rule (elephants immediately come to mind), but I still find this theory (known as Bergmann’s Rule) to be extremely compelling.
What about dinosaurs? They are reptiles, so they should be cold blooded and this idea won’t apply to them, right? There’s actually a huge debate right now as to whether dinosaurs were completely cold-blooded like other reptiles. Think of your average lizard or snake. They sit around, basking in the sun, and outside of short bursts aren’t really known for their great speed. Dinosaurs have always seemed so much more dynamic. They run around, eat things all day, and seem much more active than your average current-day reptile. If dinosaurs were indeed somewhat warm-blooded, their size should be restricted in hot climtes the same way a mammal is.
My last idea is that there was a lot more vegetation back in the day (the day meaning millions and millions of years ago), so much so that some herbivores got huge, and carnivores followed suit. More plant life also means more oxygen, and more oxygen means a greater ability to produce cellular energy. This idea is supported by some evidence, but there are fossils of very large creatures like foot-long dragonflies found in places that were not thought to have abnormally high amounts of O2.
Why do I think there was so much more in the way of plant life when compared to the Earth of today? Probably television and books and images of dinosaurs romping around in jungles. When I picture prehistoric times, it is straight out of the carboniferous period, before dinosaurs really even existed:
Do we actually know what the climate was like millions of years ago?
We don’t! Not for sure, anyways, but we can make a good guess. Usually, you can usually just look at fossilized leaves to get an idea of the climate in an area at a given time. I’m not just talking about needles versus broad leaves, either. Go outside and take a look at the leaves of the plants around you. In hotter climates, leaves tend to have smooth edges (check your tropical houseplants if you live somewhere cold!) while plants in colder climates tend to have leaves with ridges. Is this technique 100% accurate? Of course not, but like I always tell my students, scientific “fact” is just the best explanation we happen to have at a given time.
As usual, you didn’t answer the question: Why exactly did animals used to be so big?
I, uh…didn’t really find out. In fact, I think I am even further from the answer than when I started. Maybe huge organisms result from a combination of a lot of environmental factors like temperature and nutrient availability. Maybe my inability to think about ancient life in the context of hundreds of millions of years makes it so I just assume that all these giant creatures lived at the same time. They didn’t. Maybe there are just a handful of organisms every million years or so that happen to get so huge that they stir the imagination, and these organisms are the ones that we think of as stereotypical examples despite the fact that they were really rare in history. Maybe I should stop rambling.
To combat my terrible writer’s block, I’ve been trying to focus on shorter posts. It never works. I always end up going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole and ending up with a ton of extra things to talk about. Who cares that I never ended up answering my initial question; I learned a bunch of neat stuff along the way! Seeing as how that’s the main purpose of my writing, I’ll chalk this post up as a big ol’ VICTORY.
Adapting to Climate Extremes – Dennis O’Neal – GREAT read if you are at all insterested in the effects of temperature on human populations. One of the best things I’ve read in a long time, just based on how much new information I learned from it!
How to tell the climate of the dinosaur age? - Nucleus Learning
And the answer is…
Some people guessed it right away — the above picture shows the ridiculously scary combination of a lightning storm and a volcanic eruption. The eruption pictured happened at the Chaitén volcano in Chile, and when it erupted in 2008 it was the first time it had been active in over 9000 years. It’s not known exactly why volcanic eruptions cause lightning to form, but it’s believed that particles of ash and other materials rubbing together in the air can cause electrical energy to build up and eventually discharge.
The first description of volcanic lightning came from Pliny the Younger, who described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a letter written in AD 79. The full letter is definitely worth reading, but I’ll just quote the relevant part here:
The carts that we had ordered brought were moving in opposite directions, though the ground was perfectly flat, and they wouldn’t stay in place even with their wheels blocked by stones. In addition, it seemed as though the sea was being sucked backwards, as if it were being pushed back by the shaking of the land. Certainly the shoreline moved outwards, and many sea creatures were left on dry sand. Behind us were frightening dark clouds, rent by lightning twisted and hurled, opening to reveal huge figures of flame.
I absolutely love these pictures. There is something incredibly powerful and primeval about them (probably the whole “giant discharges of electricity and molten rock spewing from the earth” thing). These scenes seem like something out of the formation of the planets or the beginning of life on Earth. They immediately reminded me of a scene from Fantasia that completely freaked me out as a kid (even more than the giant devil on top of the mountain); skip ahead to 3:18 for the good stuff:
Don’t mess with nature, man. She’s one bad mother.
Would it be possible to generate electricy from articial lightning? (Ask a Mathematician/Ask a Physicist)
Chaiten Volcano Still Active – some incredible pictures here! (Boston.com)
Iceland Volcano Pictures: Lightning Adds Flash to Ash - From the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. (National Geographic)
This picture seems a little obvious, but the process behind it is still a mystery. Besides terrifying, what do you think the above picture is? Leave your guesses in the comments (yes, that means you)!
Next week, I’ll post the identity of whatever is in the picture and provide a detailed write-up.