Back in 1993, the then UK Science Minister, William Waldegrave (remember him?) launched a competition for the best lay explanation of the Higgs boson and how it might theoretically endow other particles with mass. The prize-winning Higgs analogy came from Professor David Miller of University College London and used the movements of a scientist in a room to explain how particles get mass.
I’ve taken huge liberties with Miller’s concept to bring it up to date for this week’s Higgs boson news from the LHC at CERN:
Picture the scene: Geordie boy Prof Peter Higgs steps out of the lecture theatre into the refreshments area, hoping to get to the coffee and those delicious chocolate cookies. Unfortunately, he is besieged by a throng of clamouring scientists, hacks and hangers-on. He keeps his eye on the biscuit tray but nods and chats to his peers as he proceeds slowly, attracting a bigger and bigger crowd, signing autographs, fielding questions as he goes. The “field” of hangers-on – the Higgs bosons – slows Prof Higgs in his quest to move from lecture theatre door to the refreshments it’s as if he is now so massive he can barely move, there are so many Higgs bosons surrounding the Prof.
Then, from the door comes CERN’s Professor Incandela, he’s famous, of course, well-respected, but not quite the heavyweight as the eminent Professor Higgs. Nevertheless, he attracts some hangers-on and interacts with the field too, but he has not gained so much mass and is eyeing up the rapidly dwindliny supply of chocolate cookies worriedly but moving steadily towards it.
Meanwhile, fast as light a lowly post-doc emerges from the lecture theatre having been released at the flick of a switch. Needless to say none of the bosons notice her despite her PhD and electromagnetic personality. There is no interaction with the field, it is as if she is the ultimate size-zero. With no mass to slow her she speeds through the field photonically heading straight for the last remaining chocolate cookie grabbing it in a flash, and it’s gone, photolysed into oblivion.
With apologies to the Profs and that lowly post-doc, who really took the biscuit!
You can read Prof Miller’s original prize-winning analogy from 1993 here.