Fireworks in the sky and in the lab – elusive Higgs boson finally found!

Royal fireworks display on the Thames River in England in 1749 to celebrate an important treaty signing by King George II.

Fireworks are on the menu today in thousands of U.S. cities as we celebrate the July 4th Independence Day. The invention of fireworks takes us back to the time of the ancient empires.

The Chinese stumbled onto the first proto-firecrackers around 200 B.C. when someone threw green bamboo rods into a fire. Air and sap inside the reeds heated up until bursting through the wood in a loud bang. The noise was thought to ward off evil spirits.

Sometime between 600 and 900 A.D. a precursor to gunpowder was invented that burned bright and hot when exposed to flame. Packed inside a bamboo tube and lit on fire, the gas created when the mixture burned under pressure blew the tube apart. The firecracker was born! Rolled paper later replaced bamboo.

Nova Persei provided a fireworks show during an explosion in 1901 when it briefly became one of the brightest stars in the sky. Today the twin stars are surrounded by a colorful expanding shell of gas reminiscent of  an aerial burst. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Firecrackers were introduced to the West by none other than Marco Polo when he returned to Italy with a sackful from his trip to the Orient in 1292. Before any of these seminal events, the universe had been playing with fire since time began. One of its grandest creations still lighting up galaxies to this day is the exploding star or supernova. Lesser but equally picturesque fireworks happen all the time in the Milky Way.

Thomas Anderson

Like many an amateur astronomer, Scottish clergyman Thomas Anderson made a last naked eye sweep of the sky while walking to his home late on the evening of February 21, 1901. He gaze suddenly stopped at a brand new 3rd magnitude star in the constellation Perseus the Hero. Anderson reported his observation to the Greenwich Observatory thinking that something so bright must have been seen by others. He soon learned he was the first discoverer of a new nova.

Nova Persei brightened over the next two days to magnitude 0.2, rivaling Vega in brilliance. While astronomers at the time realized they were witnessing a stellar explosion, they didn’t know its nature.

The tiny white dwarf in Nova Persei (right) sucks gas from its companion into a whirling disk. Material lands on the dwarf’s surface where it’s heated explosively. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Novas or novae (NO-vee) occur in tight binary star system where a larger, bloated star – typically a red giant – orbits an Earth-sized but extremely dense star called a white dwarf.

In a scene straight out of David-and-Goliath, the dwarf’s strong gravity pulls hydrogen gas from the giant into a swirling disk, where it funnels down to the surface of the star to accumulate as an ocean of  gas.

Heated to millions of degrees, the hydrogen suddenly ignites in a thermonuclear explosion. Sort of like bamboo in a fire but kicked it up a few billion notches. Remnants of the blast form a halo of fireworks around the binary.

A once-obscure star can brighten to the naked eye visibility in a matter of days. We call the star a “nova”, the Latin word for new, but of course it’s been there all along, lost in obscurity until its sudden rise to fame. Nova Persei is still around but renamed GK Persei. While it typically shines at a dim 13th magnitude, the star shows occasional smaller flare-ups.

A high-speed collision of two protons in the LHC shows the characteristics expected from the decay of a Higgs boson. The LHC is located in Switzerland. Credit: CERN

In other explosive news, scientists using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced the discovery today of the “holy grail” of subatomic particles, a Higgs-like boson. British physicist Peter Higgs, after whom it’s named, was one of six physicists who predicted the particle’s existence in the 1960s.

The Higgs boson is a physical sign of the Higgs field, an invisible force field that pervades the universe and gives all elementary particles – every neutron, proton and electron comprising the atoms of which we’re made – their most basic quality: mass. Were it not for the Higgs field and its particle manifestation, the Higgs boson, matter as we know it would not exist. Our universe would be little more than radiation zipping about at the speed of light. The various particles acquire their unique masses as they “swim” through the field.

Since the Higgs boson is a heavy particle, you need a lot of energy to create one. Remember what we learned from Einstein – mass or stuff is a super compact form of energy. Scientists used the LHC to fling millions of protons at one another at 99.99% the speed of light to detect the presence of the Higgs. To read more about the seminal discovery, check out this Reuters story . The London Telegraph has a video and live coverage.

It’s certainly going to be a happy Fourth of July in Switzerland today. Fireworks all around!

9 thoughts on “Fireworks in the sky and in the lab – elusive Higgs boson finally found!

    • Hi J.M.
      I’m afraid it sounds like speculation and pseudo-science to my ear. Precession, or the wobble of Earth’s axis, is due to the sun and moon’s gravitational attraction on Earth’s equatorial bulge and wonderfully explains the cyclical change of the pole star as well as the shift of the equinoxes against the distant background stars. Without going into a lot of detail, Cruttenden’s understanding of precession seems to be confused – we don’t lose time every day due to Earth’s wobble. There’s also no evidence to date that the sun has a stellar companion, especially Sirius. Sirius has its own motion – currently toward the sun – but it will pass some 7 light years from us in the distant future and then just keep on going. The article unfortunately offers no hard evidence for a solar companion, only speculation and assumptions. Tying all of this into a “Golden Age” further increases the baloney factor.

  1. Is it possible that the particle found could not be the Higgs? Wouldn’t it be possible for more than one sub-atomic particle to have mass?

    • Jayson,
      The scientists are being a bit cautious still, calling it a Higgs-like boson. It may not be the precise Higgs boson predicted, but it was real enough to make an announcement and cause Peter Higgs himself to shed a tear. As for the Higgs mass, I’ll have to defer to the physicists and assume the properties of the boson they found fell within prediction.

  2. hi Bob. skimmed the article that was highlighted in a link posted by a previous interlocutor. I certainly agree that it’s baloney or worse. And we don’t need anymore baloney than we already have: after all, it is an election year. One remark, however, caught my attention. It was said that the planet Sedna was “recently discovered”. Makes it sound certain. I think that I may have queried you about this in the past but if I did I don’t have much of a recollection of what you said. So could you comment on this matter again. Thanks.

  3. hi again Bob. thanks for your response to my last post. but now another question. I am, of course, a non-physicist (actually a non of many things) but I am interested in sub-atomic physics and try to understand as much of it as my limited knowledge allows. So regarding the Higgs boson (which is called a particle, meaning that it must have mass, minute as that might be). Seems then that the Higgs boson is a kind of catalyst operating in the Higgs field, enabling the aggregation of energy into what we call matter (protons, electrons,etc). Is that a decent way of understanding it? And what is the relation between Higgs particles and quarks, mesons, gluons and all the rest? These may be dumb questions but sometimes one has to ask dumb questions in order to advance one’s understanding of things. I await your response and thanks in advance.

    • Hi Thomas,
      The particles that comprise the electromagnetic field and “carry” its force are photons. The particles that comprise the Higgs field are Higgs bosons. I’ve heard the Higgs Field described as molasses. Some subatomic particles interact more strongly with the molasses than others. Those are the heavier ones like protons and neutrons. Electrons interact more weakly, so they are much less massive. Photons, which have no mass, don’t interact at all. Quarks are tightly bound up inside protons and neutrons, but free quarks (extremely rare in nature except immediately after the Big Bang) would be affected by the Higgs field since they have mass. Top quarks – the most massive – interact most strongly with the Higgs field.

      The easiest way to understand the Higgs field is probably to see it as just that – a field – rather than an interaction between a Higgs boson and a fundamental particle like a neutron, proton, pion, etc.

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