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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Brian Greene on the Higgs Field: Mass Molasses of the Universe

By July 21, 2012

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Brian GreeneThe Higgs boson is getting a lot of press since the July 4 CERN announcement that it may have been detected by the Large Hadron Collider, but the boson is only part of the story. See, the real work isn't done by the boson itself, but by the Higgs field, which theoretical physicist Peter Higgs proposed in 1964 as a means of explaining how the Standard Model of quantum physics could explain the mass shown by fundamental particles. The Higgs boson is just a physical manifestation of that field, created when you shove enough energy into it. (In quantum physics, fields and particles are viewed as different ways of representing the same basic physical entity. This is, of course, a bit of an over-simplification, but it's close enough.)

Here is how theoretical physicist Brian Greene explained the Higgs field on the Charlie Rose show on PBS:

Mass is the resistance an object offers to having its speed changed. You take a baseball. When you throw it, your arm feels resistance. A shotput, you feel that resistance. The same way for particles. Where does the resistance come from? And the theory was put forward that perhaps space was filled with an invisible "stuff," an invisible molasses-like "stuff," and when the particles try to move through the molasses, they feel a resistance, a stickiness. It's that stickiness which is where their mass comes from.... That creates the mass....

... it's an elusive invisible stuff. You don't see it. You have to find some way to access it. And the proposal, which now seems to bear fruit, is if you slam protons together, other particles, at very, very high speeds, which is what happens at the Large Hadron Collider... you slam the particles together at very high speeds, you can sometimes jiggle the molasses and sometimes flick out a little speck of the molasses, which would be a Higgs particle. So people have looked for that little speck of a particle and now it looks like it's been found.

Greene isn't the only one out there talking about the Higgs boson, of course. There's also this nice post from Jim Baggott, over at the Huffington Post, which helps to shed some light on why physicists are so excited, and I had an earlier post where I collected together quite a lot of the early explanations that spread across the web in the wake of the LHC announcement.


July 21, 2012 at 7:45 am
(1) Charles Norrie says:

A shaggy quark story

A Higgs boson goes into a Bar, and immediately he is accosted on all sides by party workers, ex-Conservative cabinet ministers bearing bottles of champagne for prizewinnwers of the competition he set to explain the Higgs, Margaret Thatcher and even Peter Higgs himself, and they all get weightier by meeting him. Suddenly across the Bar he spots a neutrino, which though female are known to be very flighty, have but a particle of fluff in their heads, are massless, have no charm, but aren’t strange. So he goes up to her and says :

“Would you like to start again where we left off?”

“What after last time? That was nearly 15 billion years ago. And a trillionth of a second was quite long enough for me”.

And off she fled, masslessly.

Charles Norrie

July 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm
(2) JWPlatt says:

An object in motion remains in motion. If the Higgs field is molasses, the analogy fails because no object slows down as if it is in a sticky field unless acted upon by an opposing force. I’d like to see how objects in motion are unaffected. I would also like to see how the Higgs field mass creates the geometry of spacetime such that objects “fall” down a gravity well created by the presence of objects in the Higg field.

July 21, 2012 at 3:11 pm
(3) Paul says:

I’m not sure how I feel about the molasses metaphor. Sure, it explains why massive objects at rest tend to stay at rest — but what about the other half of inertia? I realize it’s just a metaphor, of course, but it strikes me as sort of misleading…

July 21, 2012 at 7:13 pm
(4) Philip says:

To be more specific, mass is felt only during an acceleration (which includes, of course, a deceleration). An acceleration occurs two ways: a change of direction and/or a change of speed. (Physicists say that an acceleration is due to a change of velocity because velocity is a vector and encompasses both speed and direction.)
So, as long as an object with mass goes along and is NOT the subject of any external force, the Higgs field has no effect on it. BUT, whenever that object changes direction or/and velocity, the Higgs field affects it (or it affects the Higgs field… not quite sure yet on what affects what…)

July 21, 2012 at 8:27 pm
(5) JWPlatt says:

But that’s not how molasses works. My complaint is that it is a failed analogy. It does not describe the behavior because a sticky field in the conventional sense would tend to slow things in motion. The resolution to this complaint is a better analogy, if one is available. And that analogy should explain how the Higgs field discriminates between a linear velocity and an angular one, among my previously listed questions.

July 22, 2012 at 4:26 pm
(6) benderhof says:

Molasses is a fluid with high viscosity, which is a measure of resistance to change, essentially what the higgs field does. Just think of the molasses having no relative velocity wrt the particle, until the particle changes direction, at which point the molasses is dragged until it again has the no relative velocity wrt the particle.

July 22, 2012 at 9:04 pm
(7) Longsoul says:

Well, now that we have it, all we need now is the :
A. Higgs disruptor field, or
B. the anti-Higgs particle, or
C. Higgs-wave cancelling generator, ir
D. a way to speed up the molasses

for the flying cars!

July 23, 2012 at 8:06 am
(8) physics says:

Since the Higgs has no electrical charge, an anti-Higgs is just another Higgs.

July 23, 2012 at 12:34 am
(9) JWPlatt says:

benderhof, you can’t tell me that an object moving through molasses will remain in motion unless it changes direction. Molasses is sticky and will slow down the object – even if it is moving in a straight line. It is a failed analogy and needs a different one.

July 23, 2012 at 3:52 pm
(10) Ronald says:

I agree, molasses is a bad analogy. It brings us back to ether, and pre relitivity.

July 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm
(11) Matt says:

On comment (8). It’s not correct that a particle’s antiparticle is simply identical except for opposite charge.

See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antineutron.

There’s a lot that can be said on this topic, so I won’t even start now.

July 23, 2012 at 9:01 pm
(12) kenkoskinen says:

It’s magic molasses, of course (just kidding!). It’s all about interactions and the Higgs Field interacts with most things but not the photon and hence it is in effect mass-less. It also interacts in differing degrees with compatible particles and hence they have differing masses. Regular molasses sticks to every darn thing so this is where the analogy breaks down.

In any case the particle detected at CERN was not directly detected since it is very unstable but only its resulting shower of particles. The energies of the resultant particles were added and found to fit within the theoretically determined mass range of the Higgs Boson. The photon shower so far seen, is only one of four possible aftermath showers. The other three contain differing mixes of particles. Each must also be detected before a more definitive statement of discovery can be made. So the data is being sieved in the hunt for the three other breakdown particle paths.

Also Greens is wrong, the Higgs boson if it exists should be operative in the Higgs field but in a virtual form. Greene is right that it takes much energy to create one but a piece of the field does not really break off the field. A virtual Higgs Boson could be get energized and become a momentary real particle. However it could simply be an unrelated temporary boson that has nothing to do with the theoretical Higgs field. The question is still open.

July 23, 2012 at 9:35 pm
(13) Young Science Enthusiast says:

Thinking…which to study at University…Physics, Chemistry, Biology or Environmental Science. Physics sounds fun since it’s practical and may involve real life as well as abstract calculations, Chemistry can be crucial since one can get to know the chemicals surrounding him/her and use them for some benefit, Biology is interesting because one can get first hand knowledge on how to stay healthy as well as to help someone in an emergency, Environmental Science is very intriguing; it deals with the Environment and would offer the use of many sciences such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Statistics, etc…??
From that catch it seems that Environmental Science would be fun
In short, what do you think, what are the advantages and drawbacks of the listed Fields?

July 24, 2012 at 12:28 am
(14) Pqsheedy says:

Its a field. To think of anything else is silly. Dark matter does not react to the electromagnetic field, yet it “feels” the Higgs. Likewise an electron feels the electromagnetic field, but barely reacts with the Higgs field. The question isn’t what the field is, the question is why do some particles react to one field but not another? It changes our questions in a meaningful way.

July 25, 2012 at 9:35 am
(15) B.R.Ivan says:

Is it not reinventing the aether?

July 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm
(16) Sachs says:

The “molasses” and “people at a party” analogies are all extremely bad and misleading and I am surprised actual physicists sue these when talking to the public and the press. Won’t go into details why they are so bad but a hint has to do with 300 years of physics and Newton. It’s particularly bad to this when talking to young science students.

July 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm
(17) Amrit Sorli says:

Mass has origin in energy density of quantum vacuum……….see my paper:
A. Sorli, “Relative velocity of material change into a 3D quantum vacuum”, Journal of Advanced Physics 1, 1-3 (2012).

July 31, 2012 at 12:54 am
(18) kenkoskinen says:

Young Science Enthusiast, here are a few points to think about.

Physics is math intensive, be prepared to learn several forms. The big unanswered question goes to the search for the theory of everything but this is only on the big picture stage. Physics is the mother of all sciences and touches all other sciences. There is much to going on in electronics and even in the search for quantum computation. The big decision is whether to go into experimental physics or theoretical physics. Both are interesting and interconnected. Super string theory currently dominates theoretical physics but we still do not know whether it is a correct theory. The math is complex and difficult to master but said to be very beautiful and intellectually pleasing.

Biology is by far the most information intensive field. The cell was found to be highly complex and there are so many known life forms. The big question is still how did life arise from inorganic matter? However there is much on the horizon including using life forms to creating new products, medicine and even has environmental applications such as using living systems to clean up hazardous waste.

Chemistry is not as math intensive but one must learn the principles of atomic/molecular interactions via the electromagnetic force. It of course branches in many different directions.

Environmental science is a wide ranged field. One must become somewhat of an overview specialist in understand biology, weather/atmospheric systems, geology, ecosystems, oceanography and more. The big issue on the current stage deals with global warming and its causes. There are many potential adventures in this very important field.

In any case good luck on your research and I am sure you will find more on each of these enchanting fields.

August 24, 2012 at 2:19 pm
(19) james webb says:

mass isn’t just felt it is what it is… in motion or otherwise?

August 7, 2013 at 1:49 am
(20) RootieKazootie says:

What do you call Peter Higgs’ wife?

A boson’s mate.

December 20, 2013 at 3:48 am
(21) Ilya Kuryakin says:

It’s better explained by taking a few steps backwards and referring to spontaneous symmetry breaking and the like. In other words, the ‘requirement’ for the existence of a mass-producing entity.

As for the molasses ‘explanation’, better to describe it as an interaction between Higgs and the other particles.
The interaction ‘strength’ establishes the particle mass.
Anything but molasses, or treacle for that matter.

Higgs divorced in 1972, so I doubt there’s much ‘mateship’ between the two.

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