The Tiny Particle That Could Destroy the Universe

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Before we begin, I need to be upfront about something: I went to college to learn how to write poetry. I wouldn’t recommend anyone try that at home, but there’s some good news: my school forced me to take courses in other disciplines, including science.

Here’s the bad news: I took those classes my senior year, and spent the lectures drawing pictures of Gandalf the Grey fighting Obi Wan Kenobi in my notebook. It feels good to get that off my chest.

With that out of the way, here are some science words you’ve likely heard by now: the “Higgs field” and the “Higgs boson particle”—also known as the “God particle.” Let’s stick with Higgs boson for now; I had to take theology courses, too, and I don’t want to get my wires crossed.

What do you know about the Higgs boson particle, really? What does it do? Why is it important? Is it even real? And why did scientists build a 27-kilometer science race track to smash particles together like an angry kid mashing up Hot Wheels—Hot Wheels that could, theoretically, lead to the collapse of the universe.

The Standard Model of Particle Physics

Before we get into all of that, I need to burn through a quick intro to the Standard Model. The model, which was developed back in the early ‘70s, explains the fundamental structure of matter. Basically, everything in the universe is composed of fundamental particles, which are governed by four fundamental forces. The Standard Model covers how these particles and three of the fundamental forces are related to one another.

This is from the Large Hadron Collider particle detector—it’s a simulation showing the Higgs boson particle, created by the collision of two protons. Looks a bit like someone exploded a Tron light cycle.

For our purposes, all we need to know is that the four fundamental forces are: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. The Standard Model covers the first three, but it doesn’t tell us about gravitational force, and it leaves other questions unanswered, as well. For example, what is dark matter? What happened to antimatter after the big bang?

The Standard Model has been tested over the years by scientists. Despite its holes, it has been used to predict, with precision, lots of experimental results. One of these predictions was the Higgs boson particle and its related Higgs field, which for a long time was a theoretical but essential part of the Standard Model. Both were named after Dr. Peter Higgs, who proposed the whole idea in 1964.1 2

The Higgs Field and the Higgs Boson

So that’s more or less where the idea of a theoretical Higgs particle even came from, but what does it actually do? The Higgs boson is the type of fundamental particle that’s associated with the Higgs field.

The hypothetical Higgs field is a ubiquitous, quantum field that’s responsible for giving particles their masses. Those of us who don’t work on the leading edge of quantum physics tend to take it for granted that things have mass. Theoretical physicists are different. They want to know why things—including particles—have the masses they do, or why they have any mass to begin with.

The idea is that, the more massive a particle is, the more it interacts with the Higgs field.3

This is more data from proton collisions, I’m told. I would’ve guessed it was a screenshot from the original Star Fox for Super Nintendo.

To help you digest that, here’s a much simpler analogy that I’m cribbing from Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln’s helpful YouTube video, “What is a Higgs Boson?”  Think of the Higgs field as water. Swimming through that water is a sleek, streamlined barracuda. Because of the barracuda’s physical characteristics, it moves through the water quickly and easily. This is like a low-mass particle interacting with the Higgs field. The Higgs field is the water, and the Higgs boson particle is the water molecule.4

Meanwhile, a fat guy in a swimming pool is more akin to a high-mass particle. He can move through the water, but he moves a lot more slowly than the barracuda (low-mass particle). If we take this analogy literally, then the interaction between the man and the water is what gives the man his mass. In reality, the man’s mass is due to, of course, eating too many pies. But according to the Standard Model, the Higgs field, and the way it interacts with the particle it surrounds, is what gives particles their masses.5

This is a good time to remind you that you’re not in school or anything, so if you need to stop for a bit, take a stress nap, then pick the rest of this article up later, that’s your call.

Discovery of the Higgs Boson

Physicists at CERN first turned the keys on their huge Ladron Hadron Collider particle accelerator in 2008. Twenty-seven kilometers of superconducting magnets form a ring in which two particles are accelerated to near light speed, until they smash into each other.6

This machine kills protons.

The discovery of the Higgs boson particle was announced July 4, 2012. How did they use the Large Hadron Collider to discover it? Basically, if you throw two protons at each other fast enough, they’ll collide so hard that you can start looking at their components. It’s like if you wanted to figure out how cathode ray tube monitors work, so you smashed two of them into each other and then looked at all the pieces that fell out.7

The Collapse of the Universe: The Bad News

Now we’re at the fun part: could this theoretical particle and its associated field collapse the entire universe? Stephen Hawking was a very, very smart person, and he thought sure, why not?

Hawking’s thought was in line with a broader theory shared by other scientists called the “Higgs boson doomsday” theory. When scientists discovered the Higgs boson, what they really did was discover a particle with the right characteristics that matched their theoretical Higgs boson particle. One of the characteristics they observed in this Higgs boson particle? Its mass is just right—126  time the mass of a proton—for making the universe inherently unstable.

Which basically means our universe is designed to, someday, experience a catastrophic failure caused by a quantum fluctuation that creates a vacuum “bubble,” which will expand and wipe out the entire universe and all existence as we know it.

I share with you this black field of nothingness, to help you picture a post-Higgs boson doomsday universe. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure there’d even be a void left over, since the Higgs field exists in “empty” space, too.

Here’s the stinger: if the mass of the Higgs boson was only slightly different, like a few percentage points off, we wouldn’t be living in a doomed universe. But it’s not, and we are.8 9 Granted, if the Higgs boson was too light, the universe would just collapse right away. As it is, we’re right on the line.

So that’s the bad news.

The Collapse of the Universe: The Good News

The good news? Well, for one, scientists are human, and humans make mistakes. So maybe we’re wrong about living in a doomed universe. If they are wrong, though, that would mean there are fundamental aspects of physics that we’ve yet to discover. For example, if theories about invisible dark matter are correct, there could be a whole new set of properties physicists aren’t yet aware of. Maybe some new variables plugged into older equations might result in a number that doesn’t doom reality as we know it.

Another bit of good news: the Higgs field might not kill the universe for another 10 to the 100 years (i.e., a very long time). Then again, the doomsday may have already begun, and is heading our way now. That would be bad, but it does bring me to my last piece of good news. . . .

It’ll be quick. This doomsday would move at the speed of light and basically un-make the universe. Not only will you not see it coming but, once it does, you won’t feel a thing!10 11

Enjoy your summer!

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. CERN. (Accessed July 5, 2018). The Standard Model. Retrieved from https://home.cern/about/physics/standard-model
  2. Fermilab. (2011, July 7). What is a Higgs Boson? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIg1Vh7uPyw
  3. Scientific American. (Accessed July 5, 2018). What exactly is the Higgs boson? Have physicists proved that it really exists? Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-exactly-is-the-higgs/
  4. Fermilab. (2011, July 7). What is a Higgs Boson? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIg1Vh7uPyw
  5. Fermilab. (2011, July 7). What is a Higgs Boson? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIg1Vh7uPyw
  6. CERN. (Accessed July 5, 2018). The Large Hadron Collider. Retrieved from https://home.cern/topics/large-hadron-collider
  7. CERN. (Accessed July 5, 2018). The Higgs boson. Retrieved from https://home.cern/topics/higgs-boson
  8. Moskowitz, Clara. (2013, February 19). Higgs Boson Particle May Spell Doom For the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/27218-higgs-boson-universe-future.html
  9. Dickerson, Kelly. (2014, September 8). Stephen Hawking Says “God Particle” Could Wipe Out the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/47737-stephen-hawking-higgs-boson-universe-doomsday.html
  10. Moskowitz, Clara. (2013, February 19). Higgs Boson Particle May Spell Doom For the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/27218-higgs-boson-universe-future.html
  11. Dickerson, Kelly. (2014, September 8). Stephen Hawking Says “God Particle” Could Wipe Out the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/47737-stephen-hawking-higgs-boson-universe-doomsday.html

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • CERN. (Accessed July 5, 2018). The Higgs boson. Retrieved from https://home.cern/topics/higgs-boson
  • CERN. (Accessed July 5, 2018). The Large Hadron Collider. Retrieved from https://home.cern/topics/large-hadron-collider
  • CERN. (Accessed July 5, 2018). The Standard Model. Retrieved from https://home.cern/about/physics/standard-model
  • Dickerson, Kelly. (2014, September 8). Stephen Hawking Says “God Particle” Could Wipe Out the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/47737-stephen-hawking-higgs-boson-universe-doomsday.html
  • Fermilab. (2011, July 7). What is a Higgs Boson? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIg1Vh7uPyw
  • Moskowitz, Clara. (2013, February 19). Higgs Boson Particle May Spell Doom For the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/27218-higgs-boson-universe-future.html
  • Scientific American. (Accessed July 5, 2018). What exactly is the Higgs boson? Have physicists proved that it really exists? Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-exactly-is-the-higgs/

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