07/11/2012 12:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

If I Want To Look Well-Read and In-The-Know, What Do I Need To Know About the Higgs Boson Discovery and Announcement?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

By Ian McCullough, Consultant for Consumer-Facing Startups, Casual Physics Fan, and Quora User since November 2010

Alright! So the question is really, "How can I rock a cocktail party with this topic?" Unless you're hanging out at what I'm sure is a rager of an announcement bash that Jay Wacker and the folks at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center must be throwing, I think I can help you get just conversant enough ... since that's about my level on this topic.

Here are some things to casually and confidently toss out there (conversational lead-ins in bold) with a martini in one hand and a chicken satay in the other:

"Here's what all the fuss is about ... "

Some subatomic particles, like protons, have mass. Some subatomic particles, like photons, do not have mass. Up until now, we have not had any persuasive evidence for why that is. The Higgs Boson is believed to be the "mass" particle. It, supposedly, is the thing that makes things actually be tangible things.

"At the risk of being presumptuous, would you like me to go over the basics of the Standard Model of Particle Physics? Why, of course! Happy to!"

You have:

  • Quarks
  • Leptons
  • Gauge Bosons

Quarks make up the most familiar particles like protons and neutrons (a.k.a. Hadrons) which in turn form atoms. Quarks are fun to talk about because they have fun naming: up, down, top, bottom, charm, strange. They also will get your conversation partner anchored to the more familiar territory of atoms and molecules.

Leptons are smaller elementary particles that sometimes pair with hadrons (like electrons do) and sometimes do their own thing. In talking about Leptons, you can toss in a knowledgeable reference to the Superluminal Neutrino Result from OPERA (September 2011). Be sure to say something to the effect of," ... and wouldn't you know it? Loose cable. The best scientists in the world are human too."

Gauge Bosons are force carriers that facilitate interactions amongst all of the other particles. This is the time to bust out your Obi-Wan Kenobi impression. "It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." The fundamental forces covered so far in the Standard Model are Electromagnetic, Strong (nuclear force), and Weak (nuclear force). There is, however, a fourth force that has yet to be fully connected to the Standard Model. Perhaps you've heard of a little thing called gravity?

Gravity is an effect of space-time interacting with ... wait for it ... mass. Which brings us back to the importance of the Higgs Boson.

"Can you believe that Large Hadron Collider? What a piece of equipment!"

When in doubt of your audience, marvel at the awesomeness of the hardware.

In order to find evidence of the Higgs Boson, grown adults smash subatomic particles together like kindergarteners smash toy cars together. To see what's in the particles, they look at the wreckage from the collisions. ("Robert Fulghum was right!  All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten!")

Some highlights from the Wikipedia article (

  • The LHC lies in a tunnel 27 kilometres (17 mi) in circumference, as deep as 175 metres (574 ft) beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.
  • On 10 September 2008, the proton beams were successfully circulated in the main ring of the LHC for the first time, but 9 days later operations were halted due to a magnet quench incident resulting from an electrical fault. The ensuing Helium gas explosion damaged over 50 superconducting magnets and their mountings, and contaminated the vacuum pipe.
  • On 30 March 2010, the first collisions took place between two 3.5 TeV beams, setting the current world record for the highest-energy man-made particle collisions, and the LHC began its planned research program.

"We're not sure what will come of this all yet, but you know what Michael Faraday said..."

Two classic quotes are attributed to Faraday:

  • Whilst attempting to explain a discovery to either Gladstone (Chancellor) or Peel (Prime Minister) he was asked, 'But, after all, what use is it?' Faraday replied, 'Why sir, there is the probability that you will soon be able to tax it.'
  • When the Prime Minister asked of a new discovery, 'What good is it?', Faraday replied, 'What good is a new-born baby?'

Hope this helps you dazzle, amaze, and impress!

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