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How exactly would a Higgs boson give a particle mass? (+video)

Scientists say that they are close to proving the existence of the elusive Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that imputes matter with the property of mass. How does that work anyway?  

By Natalie WolchoverLifes Little Mysteries / July 3, 2012

In this file photo, a physicist explains the ATLAS experiment on a board at the European Center for Nuclear Research, CERN, outside Geneva, Switzerland. The illustration shows what the long-presumed Higgs boson particle is thought to look like.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP/File


The infamous Higgs particle has a weighty task: It grants all the other elementary particles their mass. Without it, they — we — would zip around frantically at the speed of light, too foot-loose to form atoms. But how does the Higgs do it?

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Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln describes the nature of the Higgs boson. Several large experimental groups are hot on the trail of this elusive subatomic particle which is thought to explain the origins of particle mass

In lieu of equations, physicists tend to explain the process in terms of sports and syrup.

First, each of the elementary particles acquires its unique set of attributes by interacting with invisible entities called fields. Like football fields, these are large stages upon which individuals (be they electrons or running backs) dash this way and that, and occasionally bash together. But unlike football fields, the fields of physics are three-dimensional, and extend infinitely in all directions.

One such field is the electromagnetic (EM) field — the kind you can feel near the poles of a red and silver bar magnet, but which actually exists everywhere all the time. Each particle interacts with the EM field in a way that depends on its electric charge. For example, electrons, whose charge is -1, tend to move through the field toward the positive ends of bar magnets, and to clump together with positively charged protons.

Like a sports field with its corresponding ball, each field of physics has a corresponding particle. The EM field, for example, is associated with the photon, or particle of light. This correspondence plays out in two ways: First, when the EM field is "excited," meaning its energy is flared up in a certain spot, that flare-up is, itself, a photon.

Secondly, when particles interact with the EM field (for example, when they are drawn toward the oppositely charged end of a magnet), they experience the field by absorbing and emitting a constant stream of "virtual photons" — photons that momentarily pop in and out of existence just for the purpose of mediating the particle-field interaction.

There also exists a Higgs field. It gives particles mass. [How Do You Weigh an Atom?]

Except for masless photons and gluons, "all elementary particles get their masses from their interactions with the [Higgs] field, kind of like being 'slowed down' by passing through a thick syrup," explained James Overduin, a physicist at Towson University in Maryland.

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