Waiting for the Higgs Particle - NYTimes.com
The story began in the 1960s as physicists developed what would soon be called “the standard model of particle physics” — a mathematical framework that would prove capable of predicting the results of every experiment at every atom smasher around the world. The equations locked quarks and electrons, muons and neutrinos and a host of other fundamental particles into a mathematical matrix whose intrinsic patterns, like the form of a perfect snowflake, exhibited an exacting symmetry.
But even as the theory’s predictions were repeatedly borne out by nearly half a century of experimental data, one vital part remained beyond reach.
The theory incorporated a proposal, most closely associated with the English physicist Peter Higgs, for how fundamental particles acquire mass. Roughly speaking, the mass of a particle, much like the mass of a truck, is the resistance you’d feel were you to push on it. The question is, where does this resistance come from? The answer, according to Higgs’s idea, is that all of space is filled with an invisible substance — the Higgs field — which acts kind of like a pervasive molasses, exerting a drag force as particles try to accelerate through it. The “stickier” a particle is, the more the molasses-like Higgs field affects it, and the more massive the particle appears.
The emptiest of empty space, vacuumed clean of matter and radiation, would still be permeated by the Higgs field. Higgs thus suggested a rewriting of the very definition of nothingness, filling otherwise empty space with a substance capable of bestowing upon particles their mass.
It was a strange and exotic proposal; the first paper Higgs submitted on the subject was rejected. But as physicists continued to study the idea, they found its mathematical simplicity and physical insights remarkable. Other approaches to providing particles’ mass fell afoul of one or another mathematical inconsistency, whereas Higgs’s proposal endured. By the time I entered graduate school in the 1980s, the Higgs field was routinely spoken of with such nonchalance that for a while I didn’t realize the idea had yet to be experimentally confirmed.