An idiot’s guide to subatomic theory

The possible discovery of the Higgs boson at Cern is obviously of tremendous importance to our understanding of the universe – but how does one explain the Higgs boson to a layperson, a child, an idiot? Just use this handy guide to selective explanation:

For people you’re trying to impress: “The Higgs boson is an elementary scalar particle first posited in 1962, as a potential by-product of the mechanism by which a hypothetical, ubiquitous quantum field – the so-called Higgs field – gives mass to elementary particles. More specifically, in the standard model of particle physics, the existence of the Higgs boson explains how spontaneous breaking of electroweak symmetry takes place in nature.”

For harassed, sleep-deprived parents: “If the constituent parts of matter were sticky-faced toddlers, then the Higgs field would be like one of those ball pits they have in children’s play areas. Each coloured plastic ball represents a Higgs boson: collectively they provide the essential drag that stops your toddler or electron falling to the bottom of the universe, where all the snakes and hypodermic needles are.”

For English undergraduates: “The Higgs boson is a type of subatomic punctuation with a weight somewhere between a tiny semicolon and an invisible comma. Without it the universe would be a meaningless cloud of gibberish –  a bit like The Da Vinci Code, if you read that.”

For teenagers studying matric physics: “No, I know it’s not an atom. I didn’t say it was. Well, I meant a particle. Yes, I do know what electromagnetism is, thank you very much – unified forces, Einstein, blah blah blah, mass unaccounted for, yadda yadda, quarks, Higgs boson, the end. It was a long time ago, and I’m tired.”

For taxpayers: “Its discovery is a colossal, unprecedented, almost infinite waste of money.”

For a child in the back seat of a car: “It’s a particle that some scientists have been looking for. Because they knew that without it the universe would be impossible. Because without it, the other particles in the universe wouldn’t have mass. Because they would all continue to travel at the speed of light, just like photons do. Because I just said they would, and if you ask ‘Why?’ one more time we’re not stopping at McDonalds.”

For religious fundamentalists: “There is no Higgs boson.”

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Tim Dowling
Tim Dowling works from London. Guardian columnist, sad sack. Author of Dad You Suck (4th Estate). Police Dog Hogan's banjo player. Tim Dowling has over 31680 followers on Twitter.

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