Posts Tagged ‘higgs’

Our elementary teachers taught us the world is made of atoms. Atoms have a middle bit called the nucleus. The nucleus is made of protons and neutrons. Then there’s a cloud of electrons that orbits the whole thing. That’s an atom. But I’m losing you already. No need to be polite, I can feel it. There’s a resistance to these matters, I know, especially among the poetic, and the romantic. The material world, for us, is all oceans and trees and fluffy clouds. It’s birds and bees, and fancy red wine. It seems impertinent, even a bit dangerous, to enquire any deeper, but I thought I’d have a go anyway, see if at the bottom of this rabbit hole, there is any poetry.

Here goes then:

If we make it to higher school physics, we learn the number of protons, neutrons and electrons decides what type of atom it is – iron, titanium, helium, zinc,… whatever. Atoms of different types can combine to make molecules. Molecules make more complex materials.

College physics goes further – and here we start our journey into a realm of exotic language. Electrons, says our old, white-coated lecturer, are stable elementary particles. They are indivisible, and have an independent existence. But protons and neutrons are made of ephemeral things called quarks. Quarks come in six varieties, or “flavours”. Someone with no sense of humour called them: up, charm, down, bottom, top, and strange.

Then we meet the spaced out post-grad, high on weed, who explains things further: on their own, quarks are flaky and useless, but they combine into groups called hadrons. Hadrons are like teams. You’re stronger and last longer, as part of a team. The hadrons come in two varieties: mesons and baryons. The mesons are pairs of quarks. These are unstable and gone in the blink of an eye. It’s always an early bath being on team meson. The baryons are three quarks in various combinations, and they fare better. We find our protons and neutrons in this group, and they’re the most stable, especially the protons. Well, they last long enough at least to make atoms, and the world, and therefore a party worth us showing up for. The rest of the baryons are little better than the mesons in being here today and gone tomorrow.

Protons have two “Up” and one “Down” quark, while neutrons have two “down” and one “up” quark. It’s a tough job, being a quark. If you want to hang around for long enough to make a difference in the world, you need to be on a team of uppers and downers.

But you remember the electron? It’s not alone in being a stable elementary particle. There are five others: the electron-neutrino, muon, muon-neutrino, tau, and tau-neutrino. These form an independent super-team called the leptons.

So, where are we? I’m getting lost now. We have leptons, and hadrons. The hadrons consist of mesons and baryons. The leptons and the quarks, which form the hadrons, are all known as fermions. The fermions are what can manifest as matter. Everything else is a ghost. But just when you were thinking you’d had enough, and your head’s starting to spin, you discover there’s another team that gives rise to the forces of nature, and these are the tough guys, the bosons.

There are five bosons: the Higgs, the photons, the gluons, the W bosons, and the Z bosons. Each force has its own boson. The strong force has the “gluon”, the electromagnetic force has the “photon”, and the weak force has the “W and Z bosons”. The Higgs is a special case, and gives rise to the mass of any particles it interacts with. Particles have no mass of their own and have to borrow it from the Higgs, which is harder to describe as a particle because it isn’t one. It’s a field that pervades the entire universe.

In fact, says that stoner post-grad, the thing is, there are no particles as such, even though we say there are. It’s just an analogy, something we can visualise, but that’s not to say particles are what they are, literally.

A better, though more mysterious, description is a field of potential. Like the surface of a lake, when you apply energy, by swishing your hand in it, it causes a ripple. The ripple is the particle. But the particle isn’t a particle, it’s a localisation of energy. It’s all energy, you see? Or rather, you don’t, because there’s nothing to see. So, the punchline is the more you peer into the materials that make up the world, the more you begin to realise there’s actually nothing there. And that’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

Now that’s poetry!

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