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English to Chinese: Knocking on heaven's door(a book of popular science) General field: Science Detailed field: Physics
Source text - English CHAPTER SIXTEEN
THE HIGGS BOSON
On the morning of March 30, 2010, I awoke to a flurry of e-mails about the successful 7 TeV collisions that had taken place at CERN the night before. This triumph launched the beginning of the true physics program at the LHC. The acceleration and collisions that had taken place toward the close of the previous year had been critical technical milestones. Those events were important for LHC experimenters who could finally calibrate and better understand their detectors using data from genuine LHC collisions, and not just cosmic rays that had happened to pass through their apparatus. But for the next year and a half, detectors at CERN would be recording real data that physicists could use to constrain or verify models. Finally, after its many ups and downs, the physics program at the LHC had at long last begun.
The launch proceeded almost exactly according to plan—a good thing according to my experimental colleagues, who the day before had expressed concerns that the presence of reporters might compromise the day’s technical goals. The reporters (and everyone else present) did witness a couple of false starts—in part because of the zealous protection mechanisms that had been installed, which were designed to trigger if anything went even slightly awry. But within a few hours, beams circulated and collided and newspapers and websites had lots of pretty pictures to display.
The 7 TeV collisions occurred with only half the intended LHC energy. The real target energy of 14 TeV wouldn’t be reached for several years. And the intended luminosity for the 7 TeV run—the number of protons that would collide each second—was much lower than designers had originally planned. Still, with these collisions, everything at the LHC was at long last on track. We could finally believe that our understanding of the inner nature of matter would soon improve. And if all went okay, in a couple of years the machine would shut down, gear up, and come back online at full capacity and provide the real answers we were waiting for.
One of the most important goals will be learning how fundamental particles acquire their mass. Why isn’t everything whizzing around at the speed of light, which is what matter would do if it had zero mass? The answer to this question hinges on the set of particles that are known collectively as the Higgs sector, including the Higgs boson. This chapter explains why a successful search for this particle will tell us whether our ideas about how elementary particle masses arise are correct. Searches that will take place once the LHC comes back online with higher intensity and greater energy should ultimately tell us about the particles and interactions that underlie this critical and rather remarkable phenomenon.
THE HIGGS MECHANISM
No physicist questions that the Standard Model works at the energies we have studied so far. Experiments have tested its many predictions, which agree with expectations to better than one percent precision.
However, the Standard Model relies on an ingredient that no one has yet observed. The Higgs mechanism, named after the British physicist Peter Higgs, is the only way we know to consistently give elementary particles their mass. According to the basic premises of the naive version of the Standard Model, neither the gauge bosons that communicate forces nor the elementary particles, such as quarks and leptons that are essential to the Standard Model should have nonzero masses. Yet measurements of physical phenomena clearly demonstrate that they do. Elementary particle masses are critical to understanding atomic and particle physics phenomena, such as the radius of an electron’s orbit in an atom or the extremely tiny range of the weak force, not to mention the formation of structure in the universe. Masses also determine how much energy is needed to create elementary particles—in accordance with the equation E=mc2. Yet in the Standard Model without a Higgs mechanism, elementary particles’ masses would be a mystery. They would not be allowed.
The notion that particles don’t have an inalienable right to their masses might sound needlessly autocratic. You could quite reasonably expect that particles always have the option of possessing a nonvanishing mass. Yet the subtle structure of the Standard Model and any theory of forces is just that tyrannical. It constrains the types of masses that are allowed. The explanations will seem a little different for gauge bosons than for fermions, but the underlying logic for both relates to the symmetries at the heart of any theory of forces.
The Standard Model of particle physics includes the electromagnetic, weak, and strong nuclear forces, and each force is associated with a symmetry. Without such symmetries, too many oscillation modes of the gauge bosons—the particles that communicate those forces—would be predicted to be present by the theory that quantum mechanics and special relativity tells us describes them. In the theory without symmetries, theoretical calculations would generate nonsensical predictions, such as probabilities for high-energy interactions greater than one for the spurious oscillation modes. In any accurate description of nature, such unphysical particles—particles that don’t actually exist because they oscillate in the wrong direction—clearly need to be eliminated.
In this context, symmetries act like spam filters, or quality control constraints. Quality requirements might specify keeping only those cars that are symmetrically balanced, for instance, so that the cars that make it out of the factory all behave as expected. Symmetries in any theory of forces also screen out the badly behaved elements. That’s because interactions among the undesirable, unphysical particles don’t respect the symmetries, whereas those particles that interact in a way that preserves the necessary symmetries oscillate as they should. Symmetries thereby guarantee that theoretical predictions involve only the physical particles and therefore make sense and agree with experiments.
Symmetries therefore permit an elegant formulation of a theory of forces. Rather than eliminate unphysical modes in each calculation one by one, symmetries eliminate all the unphysical particles with one fell swoop. Any theory with symmetric interactions involves only the physical oscillation modes whose behavior we want to describe.
This works perfectly in any theory of forces involving zero mass force carriers, such as electromagnetism or the strong nuclear force. In symmetric theories, predictions for their high-energy interactions all make sense and only physical modes—modes that exist in nature—get included. For massless gauge bosons, the problem with high-energy interactions is relatively straightforward to solve, since appropriate symmetry constraints remove any unphysical, badly behaved modes from the theory.
Symmetries thereby solve two problems: unphysical modes are eliminated, and the bad high-energy predictions that would accompany them are as well. However, a gauge boson with nonzero mass has an additional physical—existent in nature—mode of oscillation. The gauge bosons that communicate the weak nuclear force fall into this category. Symmetries would eliminate too many of their oscillation modes. Without some new ingredient, weak boson masses cannot respect the Standard Model symmetries. For gauge bosons with nonzero mass, we have no choice but to keep a badly behaved mode—and that means the solution to the bad high-energy behavior is not so simple. Nonetheless something is still required for the theory to generate sensible high-energy interactions.
Moreover, none of the elementary particles in the Standard Model without a Higgs can have a nonzero mass that respects the symmetries of the most naive theory of forces. With the symmetries associated with forces present, quarks and leptons in the Higgsless Standard Model would not have nonzero masses either. The reason appears to be unrelated to the logic about gauge bosons, but it can also be traced to symmetries.
In Chapter 14, we presented a table that included both left-and right-handed fermions—particles that get paired in the presence of nonzero masses. When quark or lepton masses are nonzero, they introduce interactions that convert left-handed fermions to right-handed fermions. But for left-handed and right-handed fermions to be interconvertible, they would both have to experience the same forces. Yet experiments demonstrate that the weak force acts differently on left-handed fermions than on the right-handed fermions that massive quarks or leptons could turn into. This violation of parity symmetry, which if preserved would treat left and right as equivalent for the laws of physics, is startling to everyone when they first learn about it. After all, the other known laws of nature don’t distinguish left and right. But this remarkable property—that the weak force does not treat left and right the same—has been demonstrated experimentally and is an essential feature of the Standard Model.
The different interactions of left- and right-handed quarks and leptons tells us that without some new ingredient, nonzero masses for quarks and leptons would be inconsistent with known physical laws. Such nonzero masses would connect particles that carry weak charge with particles that do not.
In other words, since only left-handed particles carry this charge, weak charge could be lost. Charges would apparently disappear into the vacuum—the state of the universe that doesn’t contain any particles. Generally that should not happen. Charges should be conserved. If charge could appear and disappear, the symmetries associated with the corresponding force would be broken, and the bizarre probabilistic predictions about high-energy gauge boson interactions that they are supposed to eliminate would reemerge. Charges should never magically disappear in this manner if the vacuum is truly empty and contains no particles or fields.
But charges can appear and disappear if the vacuum is not really empty—but instead contains a Higgs field that supplies weak charge to the vacuum. A Higgs field, even one that gives charge to the vacuum, isn’t composed of actual particles. It is essentially a distribution of weak charge throughout the universe that happens only when the field itself takes a nonzero value. When the Higgs field is nonvanishing, it is as if the universe has an infinite supply of weak charges. Imagine that you had an infinite supply of money. You could lend or take money at will and you would always still have an infinite amount at your disposal. In a similar spirit, the Higgs field puts infinite weak charge into the vacuum. In doing so, it breaks the symmetries associated with forces and lets charges flow into and out of the vacuum so that particle masses arise without causing any problems.
One way to think about the Higgs mechanism and the origin of masses is that it lets the vacuum behave like a viscous fluid—a Higgs field that permeates the vacuum—that carries weak charge. Particles that carry this charge, such as the weak gauge bosons and Standard Model quarks and leptons, can interact with this fluid, and these interactions slow them down. This slowing down then corresponds to the particles acquiring mass, since particles without mass will travel through the vacuum at the speed of light.
This subtle process by which elementary particles acquire their masses is known as the Higgs mechanism. It tells us not only how elementary particles acquire their masses, but also quite a bit about those masses’ properties. The mechanism explains, for instance, why some particles are heavy while others are light. It is simply that particles that interact more with the Higgs field have larger masses and those that interact less have smaller ones. The top quark, which is the heaviest, has the biggest such interaction. An electron or an up quark, which have relatively small masses, have much more feeble ones.
The Higgs mechanism also provides a deep insight into the nature of electromagnetism and the photon that communicates that force. The Higgs mechanism tells us that only those force carriers that interact with the weak charge distributed throughout the vacuum acquire mass. Because the W gauge bosons and the Z boson interact with these charges, they have nonvanishing masses. However, the Higgs field that suffuses the vacuum carries weak charge but is electrically neutral. The photon doesn’t interact with the weak charge, so its mass remains zero. The photon is thereby singled out. Without the Higgs mechanism, there would be three zero mass weak gauge bosons and one other force carrier—also with zero mass—known as the hypercharge gauge boson. No one would ever mention a photon at all. But in the presence of the Higgs field, only a unique combination of the hypercharge gauge boson and one of the three weak gauge bosons will not interact with the charge in the vacuum—and that combination is precisely the photon that communicates electromagnetism. The photon’s masslessness is critical to the important phenomena that follow from electromagnetism. It explains why radio waves can extend over enormous distances, while the weak force is screened over extremely tiny ones. The Higgs field carries weak charge—but no electric charge. So the photon has zero mass and travels at the speed of light—by definition—while the weak force carriers are heavy.