The Nobel Prize for Peter Higgs recognises truth in an ancient Greek idea

The old system was familiar, the modern one somewhat more intimidating

Share
Related Topics

The ancient Greeks imagined that all of the wondrous variety of substances we see in the world around us are constructed from combinations of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. They weren’t alone; similar ideas flourished in Babylon, Egypt, and India. The Nobel Prize being awarded today to François Englert and Peter Higgs celebrates the modern version of this ancient idea.

Modern physics says that the Greeks had a good basic intuition—everything around us is made of a few simple ingredients—but were wrong on the details. Instead of the classical elements, we now have elementary particles. The Higgs boson, discovered last year at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, is the final piece of the puzzle describing everyday matter.

The ancient system was a crowd-pleaser, with each element being familiar and easily visualized. The modern collection of elementary particles, by contrast, can be a bit intimidating.

But at a very basic level, there are only two types of particles. There are the particles of matter, called “fermions,” which make up solid objects like planets and tables and people. And there are the force-carrying particles, called “bosons,” which allow the matter particles to stick together and interact. There are twelve different matter particles, with fun names like “charm quark” and “muon neutrino,” as well as four basic forces, each with its associated bosons.

Then there is the Higgs. It’s a boson, but its primary role isn’t to carry a force, which makes it a bit unusual right from the start. The secret of the Higgs is that it’s associated with an invisible energy field that fills all of space, cleverly named “the Higgs field.” At this moment you are surrounded by Higgs field, embedded in it as all matter has been since soon after the Big Bang.

The particles of which you are made feel the influence of this field, and that influence makes them what they are. Electrons, for example, whirl around the outskirts of atoms, and are responsible for important things like “electricity” and “chemistry” and for that matter “biology.” But without the Higgs, electrons would have zero mass, and according to Einstein that means they would move at the speed of light rather than settling into atoms. That means no atoms, no chemistry, no life itself. The Higgs is pretty important.

The idea that empty space is filled with an invisible field that affects all the particles moving through it is a radical one. It was put forward back in 1964 by several different physicists, among whom were Englert and Higgs. It was Higgs who first pointed out that if you start this field vibrating (for example, by smashing particles together at high energies), it will create a new kind of particle: the Higgs boson.

Inventing the idea of a Higgs field was a triumph of human ingenuity. Actually finding it required not only cleverness, but an enormous amount of effort and technological progress. The Large Hadron Collider was built and operated by thousands of highly skilled technicians and experimental physicists, many of whom essentially devoted their lives to the project.

And they’re not done yet. The ancient Greeks knew that the universe was far bigger than what we experience down here on Earth, so they suggested a fifth element—“quintessence”—to account for the celestial realm. Today we know that other stars and planets are made of atoms just like we are, but there are other things out there as well. We call them “dark matter” and “dark energy,” but their precise nature remains elusive.

Dark matter and dark energy aren’t just flights of fancy from theoretical physicists with too much time on their hands. They are demanded by the requirement that we explain the data collected by our telescopes and satellites. And none of the particles we’ve yet discovered can account for them. But we’re optimistic that we will pin them down, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Large Hadron Collider is currently shut down for upgrades. It will turn back on in 2015, roaring to life at higher energies than ever. Hopefully nature will have some surprises in store for us when it does.

Sean Carroll is a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. His book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: The Hunt for the Higgs and the Discovery of a New World, won the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2013.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea