The Higgs Particle Matters

  • Posted 06.28.12
  • NOVA

In 1964, physicist Peter Higgs predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle that would confer mass on other particles. Forty-two years later, on July 4, 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN gave us the first glimpse of the Higgs. In this clip from "The Fabric of the Cosmos," learn about Higgs' theory and hear from Peter Higgs himself.

Running Time: 04:46



BRIAN GREENE: It all started in 1964, when a young English physicist, named Peter Higgs, suggested something about space that was so radical it nearly ruined him.

PETER HIGGS (University of Edinburgh): I was told that I was talking nonsense, that I couldn't be right. So they clearly hadn't understood what I was saying.

BRIAN GREENE: Higgs and a few others were wrestling with a puzzle which comes down to this: the fundamental particles in the universe all contain different amounts of mass, which we usually think of as weight. Without mass, these particles would never combine to form the familiar atoms that make up all the stuff we see in the world around us. But what creates mass? And why do different particles have different masses?

Try as they might, no one had been able answer this perplexing question. Then, one weekend, after a walk outside Edinburgh, Higgs had a peculiar idea.

Using mathematics, he imagined space in a new way, as something like an ocean. Particles are immersed in this ocean, and gain mass as they move through it.

To see how this works, think of a particle's mass like an actor's fame, and the Higgs ocean is like the paparazzi: some particles, like unknown actors, pass through with ease; the paparazzi simply aren't interested in them. But other particles, like superstars, have to push and press. And the more those particles struggle to get through, the more they interact with the ocean, and the more mass they gain.

Higgs was convinced he'd made a great discovery. But when he submitted his idea to a journal at CERN, it was rejected.

Undaunted, Higgs honed his theory further, until he was offered the chance to present it at Einstein's old haunt: the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton.

There, he expected his new idea would meet some of its toughest critics.

PETER HIGGS: I was happily driving up the freeway, and then there was a sign to turn off for Princeton, and that really confronted me with what I was going into. I broke out in a cold sweat, and I started trembling, and I had to pull off the road to recover.

BRIAN GREENE: But Higgs persevered. It was the first in a series of talks that would convince colleagues far and wide that he was onto something profound.

PETER HIGGS: Eventually, I sort of wore them down. I felt I had sort of triumphed, so I enjoyed the parties which followed.

BRIAN GREENE: Today, the idea Higgs pioneered, called the Higgs Field, is crucial to our understanding of space.

JOSEPH LYKKEN: The Higgs Field is everywhere. It's something that even in the emptiest vacuum of space has an effect: it gives you mass. So I think Higgs actually deserves credit for being one of the people that said, "Space is stuff. It has properties in it that are intrinsic, that you can't get rid of. You can't turn them off."

BRIAN GREENE: The only problem? There's no physical proof that the Higgs Field exists, at least not yet. But here at CERN, scientists are attempting to smash particles together with so much energy that they will knock loose a piece of the Higgs Field, producing a tiny particle of its own. It's as if they're trying to chip off a piece of space.

JOSEPH LYKKEN: We think that if we knock into space hard enough, with particle accelerator collisions, that we can actually make a Higgs particle come out of empty space.

LEONARD SUSSKIND: Our whole understanding of matter as we now have it would just fall apart, if the Higgs Field didn't exist.

RAPHAEL BOUSSO: I don't think anybody seriously doubts that we will see it. Certainly, if we don't, that will be an extremely bizarre outcome.

BRIAN GREENE: Finding the Higgs particle would be a major milestone, establishing that the emptiest of empty space has an impact on all of matter.


Production Credits

Original Footage
©WGBH Educational Foundation

This video short is an excerpt from NOVA's "The Fabric of the Cosmos: What Is Space?"


(simulated Higgs decaying into four muons)
©1995 CERN

Related Links

  • Higgs Boson Revealed

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  • The Fabric of the Cosmos

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  • The Higgs Boson Explained

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  • CERN

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