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Higgs 1: Frozen light

The discovery of the Higgs particle is one step further on a long road – the search for the nature of matter. Our experience of matter starts in childhood, when we become familiar with objects and learn to live with them – how to pick them up when they’re useful and avoid bumping into them when they’re not. Our language is so attuned to objects that we speak in object terms even when the topic is highly abstract and insubstantial. Thus we talk about ‘giving time’ as if we were handing out sweets, and ‘having a point

Higgs 2: What makes light matter?

The big question is: what is the process that somehow freezes or condenses energy into particles of matter? In this process, the energy somehow acquires the characteristic of mass – for which we can go again to David Bohm: ‘Mass is a phenomenon of connecting light rays which go back and forth, sort of freezing them into a pattern.’ It is as if the light ray that flows through space and time has been somehow trapped, its forward motion locked into a extremely tiny circle. And when the opposite process takes place, in which a particle and

Higgs 3: Symmetry for the strong

When the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie died in 1899 he was a bitter and disappointed man. True, his mathematical ability had been recognised by some of the greatest people in the field, including the great German mathematician Felix Klein, and Lie had succeeded Klein in the chair of mathematics at Leipzig. But those who understood the true significance of his work and its potential for physics were very few; and indeed after only two years in the post he resigned and went back to Norway and suffered a mental breakdown. His physical health declined as well,

Higgs 4: Symmetry for the weak

The weak interactions are really weak compared to the strong ones. Indeed they are really weak compared to electromagnetism – about 100 billion times weaker. Yet there are also some similarities with electromagnetism. As far back as 1941 Julian Schwinger had felt that these similarities were significant, and took a step forward in a paper of 1957. Schwinger is regarded as one of the giants of fundamental physics, both from the quality of his work and the way in which he inspired and assisted others. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work

Higgs 5: The strong dominate the field

By the mid-1960s, the situation in particle physics was not good. Its aim had been to uncover the basic building blocks of matter, and for a time the end seemed in sight. In 1917 Ernest Rutherford had split the atom and showed it consisted of an electrically positive nucleus surrounded by negative electrons. In 1932 John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, working under Rutherford's direction, split the nucleus and showed it to be a clump of positive protons and neutral neutrons. The experimenters' successes stimulated the mathematical physicists to develop a series of powerful theories. First came

Higgs 6: Can the circle be unbroken?

In the 1960s the tide in physics flowed towards tackling the strong interactions, as those grappling with the weak interactions had come up against an apparently unshiftable block.The technique that seemed to be the most powerful one was the use of symmetry, and the use of Lie groups enabled a classification to be made that brought the weak interaction into a possible unification with the electromagnetic one. That was truly amazing. The long-distance electromagnetic field that gives us light and radio waves was somehow linked at a deep level with the weak interaction which we only know

Higgs 7: Three roads converge

By 1964 the challenge was clear. The familiar phenomena of electricity and magnetism looked as if they could be part of something even bigger. This 'something' was the electroweak interaction, with the electromagnetic field one of its aspects and the weak interaction another. The reasoning came from symmetry. Looked at from one perspective, the electroweak field appeared as electromagnetism. Vewed from another perspective, it appeared as the weak interaction which causes radioactivity. But because these two interactions, weak and electromagnetic, are so different, the symmetry could not be complete. So somehow the symmetry had to be

Higgs 8: Physics is worth a mass

People remember 1967 for different reasons. It was the year of the Six-Day War in the Middle East and the military coup in Greece. It was the year when North Sea gas came ashore in Britain, when the Beatles issued Sergeant Pepper, and when Celtic won the European Cup. Nicole Kidman was born, Elvis Presley got married, and Woody Guthrie died. Dr Christiaan Barnard carried out the first heart transplant and Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars. And two physicists, working independently, applied the Higgs mechanism to unite electromagnetism and the weak interaction into a single overall structure.

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