The Higgs Boson

January 11, 2012

I am beginning to attract some religious conspiracy theorists…I think I’d better change the subject!

So…deep breath.  I’m going to attempt to explain this whole Higgs boson thing which the news keeps going on about, and which, seeing as it is supposedly one of the most important things ever, I’ve been meaning for a while to actually try to properly understand.  Usual disclaimers: I am not a physicist (in fact whether or not I’m even a proper mathematician is arguable) and I am writing this mainly as a motivation to increase my own understanding.  However, my theory is that, unless an expert is a supremely good communicator, it is often easier to gain a basic understanding of a complex subject from another interested layperson (as they know exactly how you feel).  Certainly I would have liked someone else to have written something like this to save me the effort!

I think we have all heard about the search for the Higgs boson by the people at CERN.  Probably, if you’re still reading this, you have also, like me, wondered exactly what this boson is, what it does, and why it matters so much.  And probably you have some vague notion that it is a particle which “gives other particles mass”.  That is the point I shall start from.

But first, a question – why are things the size they are?  Sounds a bit vague and philosophical, I know.  But the size of an object is determined by the size of the molecules which make it up, which are in turn determined by the size of their constituent atoms.  Atoms consist of a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, surrounded by orbiting electrons.  And the size of an atom is determined by the sizes of the orbits of its electrons.  But the size of electrons’ orbits depends on the mass of the electron!  So in order to find an answer to why things are the size they are, we need to address the question of why an electron has the mass it does.  And while we’re at it, we may as well ask why other elementary particles have the mass they do…for example, why do photons have no mass at all?

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Schrödinger’s cat

November 8, 2011

I usually read novels in bed, as my brain tends to be too tired to take in any more information for the day.  So the fact that this is the third post I am starting with a reference to a popular science book makes me think that perhaps I have not been working hard enough…

The book in question is The Emperor’s New Mind, by Roger Penrose.  The main thesis of this wonderful book is, apparently (and in a very small nutshell), that the mind does not work like a computer*.  However, I am currently about 3/4 of the way through it, and this has not yet been touched upon!  Rather, over 400 pages or so, Penrose has valiantly attempted to explain Turing machines, classical mechanics, relativity, quantum theory and cosmology to the interested (and, one must assume, quite dedicated) layperson.  I can only assume that all this is going to coalesce into a grand theory of Mind, but it does so far seem like quite an ambitious project.  Having tried to achieve this kind of comprehensive introduction to even the smallest of mathematical subjects myself in previous posts (you might have noticed that I have long since given up trying to do this), I have great respect for Penrose’s tenacity.  I find that the problem with this type of enterprise lies in trying to tread the line between being impenetrable to non-mathematicians, and boring for mathematicians.   While The Emperor’s New Mind is a great book, I think it is safe to say that it probably falls on the former side of this line; it is perhaps not entirely suitable for bedtime reading.

Anyway, I have just been reading Penrose’s take on the maltreated feline of this post’s title, and it got me thinking, so I thought I would discuss it.  The cat in question is a paradox which Erwin Schrödinger came up with in order to show the absurdity of trying to apply quantum theory at the classical physical level (that is, the everyday world with which we interact, as opposed to the exceedingly odd quantum level of subatomic particles).   This is, of course, a massive and complex subject, and I will only provide the merest of scrapes of its surface!  If you happen to be a pedantic physicist, then please do comment on any inaccuracies in what follows.

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