Mass, metaphor and Margaret Thatcher

Prospect Magazine

Mass, metaphor and Margaret Thatcher

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The boson in simple terms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Christian Payne


This is an abridged version of the winning entry to a 1993 competition by the journal Nature, to explain the Higgs boson in the simplest possible terms, after a challenge by William Waldegrave, science minister.

“Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-prime minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is, she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is hard to stop, and once stopped she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process has to be restarted.

“In three dimensions, and with the complications of relativity, this is the Higgs mechanism. In order to give particles mass, a background field is invented which becomes locally distorted whenever a particle moves through it. The distortion—the clustering of the field around the particle—generates the particle’s mass.”

David Miller was a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at UCL. His website is www.hep.ucl.ac.uk/~djm/

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