Physicists are hunting for an elusive particle that would reveal the presence of a new kind of field that permeates all of reality. Finding that Higgs field will give us a more complete understanding about how the universe works


Most people think they know what mass is, but they understand only part of the story. For instance, an elephant is clearly bulkier and weighs more than an ant. Even in the absence of gravity, the elephant would have greater mass–it would be harder to push and set in motion. Obviously the elephant is more massive because it is made of many more atoms than the ant is, but what determines the masses of the individual atoms? What about the elementary particles that make up the atoms–what determines their masses? Indeed, why do they even have mass?

We see that the problem of mass has two independent aspects. First, we need to learn how mass arises at all. It turns out mass results from at least three different mechanisms, which I will describe below. A key player in physicists’ tentative theories about mass is a new kind of field that permeates all of reality, called the Higgs field. Elementary particle masses are thought to come about from the interaction with the Higgs field. If the Higgs field exists, theory demands that it have an associated particle, the Higgs boson. Using particle accelerators, scientists are now hunting for the Higgs.

The second aspect is that scientists want to know why different species of elementary particles have their specific quantities of mass. Their intrinsic masses span at least 11 orders of magnitude, but we do not yet know why that should be so. For comparison, an elephant and the smallest of ants differ by about 11 orders of magnitude of mass.

What Is Mass?

Isaac newton presented the earliest scientific definition of mass in 1687 in his landmark Principia: “The quantity of matter is the measure of the same, arising from its density and bulk conjointly.” That very basic definition was good enough for Newton and other scientists for more than 200 years. They understood that science should proceed first by describing how things work and later by understanding why. In recent years, however, the why of mass has become a research topic in physics. Understanding the meaning and origins of mass will complete and extend the Standard Model of particle physics, the well-established theory that describes the known elementary particles and their interactions. It will also resolve mysteries such as dark matter, which makes up about 25 percent of the universe.

By Gordon Kane

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