09/19/2013 08:01 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

How Can One Visualize the Higgs Boson?

As an experimental particle physicist, I'm always trying to get the general public interested in what I do. I started a project called Quarked! Adventures in the Subatomic Universe several years ago after realizing that most people have no idea what particle physics is. Because I think it is the greatest thing and much more exciting than astronomy, of course, I was looking for the key to making it interesting for others. I remember going to my cousin's house and talking to her 5-year-old daughter, who had a book of the planets in her room. (Yes, Pluto was still there.) I asked her what her favorite planet was, and she said, "I don't know. I haven't been to them all yet." This is the energy that scientists have to key into. I believe that elementary-school-aged children can understand quantum physics probably at a better intuitive level than adults, as they don't have the preconceived notions that are drilled into us by the time we reach high school. So at the University of Kansas, with lots of help from designers and informal science educators, we created cartoon characters that depict the quarks and leptons that are the basic building blocks of everything we know.

We only created characters for experimentally observed particles. For instance, there is no talk about string theory on the site, as I consider it philosophy and not science until it can make predictions. Well, during 2012, at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, our CMS collaboration was one of the two experiments set up to observe a particle that we now believe is the Higgs boson of the "Standard Model" of particle physics. I was hoping that what we found was not the Higgs boson, but alas, it looks like what we've got is precisely that. I'd been looking for it for over 10 years myself.

So now the hard part comes. (What we've done so far is easy compared to what comes next.) How do you explain the Higgs boson to the general public? The problem centers on how we understand it as physicists. We learn about the math and understand it that way, but that doesn't help get an intuitive feel for what is going on. So for Quarked! we had to draw the character and unveil it on our website. I think about the Higgs field as permeating space. Unfortunately, if we accept that premise, then we have to explain the boson part of it and not just the field part of it. Well, as most physicists do, I won't tackle that part. (I'm not a theoretical physicist, just an experimentalist.) We just decided that the boson could represent the field, and we drew a character with a bunch of suckers on it. The idea is that the boson sucks onto particles as they travel through the field, slowing them down, thus creating mass. The electron (which is light) doesn't get sucked on too much by the boson, while the top quark (which is really heavy) is completed surrounded by the Higgs as it sucks onto it. That's our way of seeing it. Check out the Quarked! website to see whether you like the character.