May 29 – You’re not the boson me!

Today’s Factismal: Peter Higgs is 85 years old today while the subatomic particle that bears his name is just over one year old.

Particle physics is fun. Where else can you draw pictures and get a Nobel prize for it? And the language of particle physics is full of jokes. The particles that make up protons and neutrons are called “quarks” after a nonsense word in Finnegan’s Wake, and the four types (or “flavors”) or quarks are top, bottom, up, down, strange and charm. The particle that holds the atomic nucleus together is called a gluon. And finding missing things leads to Nobel prizes.

Perhaps the most famous example of that last is the neutrino. When Wolfgang Pauli looked at the amount of energy that was being given off by the a type of radioactive decay and the equations that described it, he noticed that the equations predicted that more energy would be given off than was observed. He decided that the energy had to be carried away by a tiny (even for subatomic particle) critter that had no charge; this became known as the neutrino. Using a special type of atom smasher, Clyde Cowan, Frederick Reines, F. B. Harrison, H. W. Kruse, and A. D. McGuire detected the critter; Reines (who was the lead researcher) was awarded the Nobel prize for his work forty years later.

The Higgs boson decaying into four muons (Image courtesy CERN)

The Higgs boson decaying into four muons
(Image courtesy CERN)

And recently, we’ve seen the discovery of another subatomic particle that was proposed in order to explain something that was missing. In this case, it was a missing force carrier. Every force in the universe has a particle associated with it that transmits the force. Light and magnetism are both carried by the photon. The strong nuclear force that glues protons and neutrons together and keeps them in the atomic nucleus is carried by the appropriately named gluon. The weak nuclear force that keeps the electron far away from the atomic nucleus is transmitted by the W and Z bosons. And the force of gravity is mediated by what has come to be known as the Higgs boson (even though several people proposed it).

Known by the vulgar as “The God Particle” (physicists hate that term), the Higgs boson was the last of the force carriers to be detected. And to be fair, it still hasn’t been announced as having been discovered; the folks at CERN are just pretty sure that what they’ve seen isn’t something else. In order to see the Higgs boson, physicists smash together neutrons, protons, and other atomic particles at speeds approaching the speed of light. The collision releases lots of energy which (thanks to Einstein) immediately turns into more subatomic particles fleeing the scene of the accident. The physicists then sort through the images of the collision, hoping to find evidence for the Higgs boson.

The ATLAS detector (Image courtesy CERN)

The ATLAS detector
(Image courtesy CERN)

And that’s where they need your help. Though they have some of the best computers in the world, having more computing time is always good. By sharing the CPU on your computer when you aren’t using it, they can speed up the search. If you’d like to help, then go over to LHC@Home. While you won’t get a Nobel prize, you will be helping to discover one of the most exciting and elusive critters in the subatomic zoo!

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