Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mass: Is the Higgs boson the "stuff" of all that stuff we call matter?

Over at BreakPoint, Regis Nicoll offers, in "Cracking the Cosmic Code" (9/12/2008) that the Large Hadron Collider (which aims to discover the fundamental nature of our universe), a clear summary of some of the questions and possibilities, for example,

Matter is the stuff of everyday common experience. Trees, rocks, flesh, planets and stars are all made of matter. Matter, in turn, is comprised of quarks, electrons and neutrinos—distinguished from other particle types by their mass.

Commonly associated with weight, mass is the measure of an object’s resistance to an applied force. But two questions that have plagued researchers are “What gives an object its mass?” and “Why do some particles (like electrons) have mass, and others (like photons) do not?”

String theorists propose that mass is a byproduct of the tension and vibration patterns of Planck-sized strings. String theory skeptics think otherwise.

In 1964 physicist Peter Higgs conjectured that mass was caused by an invisible field that pervades the entire universe. Comprised of what were later dubbed “Higgs particles,” this field can be thought of as a kind of cosmic molasses that preferentially inhibits the motion of certain particle types. Because of its ubiquity and its importance to the standard model of physics, many pundits refer to Higgs as the “God Particle.”

As it turns out, the energy of the LHC is sufficiently large to detect the Higgs if, indeed, it exists. Thus, of all the mysteries that the LHC is hoped to solve, verification of Higgs is the most promising.
Robert Paster points out in New Physics and the Mind that one function of the Higgs boson, asuming it exists, is to resolve the fact that we actually have two different concepts of what mass is, inertial and gravitational:
Inertial mass is the quality of an object that relates force to acceleration. ... Divide force by acceleration, and you've determined the object's mass.

Separately, we have a completely different understanding of mass: mass tells us how heavy an object is, how much "stuff" it contains. And how large an effect (gravitational pull) it will have pullng on another object. Not how resistant it is to being put into motion. Not how much force is behind it once it is in motion. But how heavy it is. (pp. 149-50)
It would be more convenient, he suggests, if Higgs's elementary particle gives matter its mass.

Given that the Higgs is an elementary particle, we are not to ask, I gather, what gives it it's mass - that's just how things are.

See also:

"Large Hadron Collider: Experiments underway"

"No escape from philosophy through equations"

"And what if the Large Hadron Collider doesn't find the Higgs boson ... ?"

"Large Hadron Collider: And what if, $3 billion later, they don't find the God particle?"