30 August 2012

Science Café launches new season with talk on Higgs Boson


Science Café is back with a bang for the 2012-13 school year: Physicist Harrison Prosper will talk about the mysterious Higgs boson, sometimes called the God Particle (after the provocative title of a book by Nobel prize-winner Leon Lederman).

Physicist Harrison Prosper talks about the Higgs boson. Physicist Harrison Prosper talks about the Higgs boson at the season’s first Science Café. Prosper will cover what the Higgs boson is and why its discovery could add to our understanding of life and the universe. Big topics, but discussed at the layman’s level — so bring your questions! It all happens on Sept. 11 at Ray’s Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road. Prosper’s chat will start at 6:15 p.m. and wrap up by 7:30 p.m. Come early for a good seat.

The Higgs boson — if it exists — is what Prosper and other physicists call an elementary or fundamental particle, i.e., a particle that is not made up of other, smaller particles. (Atoms, for example, are not elementary particles because they are made up of other subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons.) What makes the Higgs boson so singular is that scientists think it is what gives substance (or mass) to all the other particles. If true, knowing how the Higgs functions should expand our understanding of how the universe is put together and how it all works.

The Higgs boson made headlines this summer when scientists declared that they had found it — well, almost. They hedged a bit, saying that what they had uncovered was clearly a boson particle with many Higgs-like characteristics. Since that July 4 announcement, scientists at CERN, a multinational research center in Geneva, have been working hard to determine if this new particle is indeed the Higgs. CERN houses the world’s biggest physics machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which cost a cool $10 billion and began running about two years ago. This pricy particle accelerator produces proton collisions at incredible speeds, and these collisions in turn produce the data needed to confirm the existence of the elusive Higgs boson.

Prosper, the Kirby Kemper Professor of Physics at Florida State University, was one of scores of scientists who worked with the CERN data related to the Higgs-like boson. He’ll likely give an update on what’s happening at CERN, too.

The whole idea that one particle could bestow mass on all the other particles came about in 1964, when Peter Higgs and five other physicists (Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, François Englert, and Robert Brout) proposed a theory to explain how particles like electrons could acquire mass. This theory was soon incorporated into what became known as the Standard Model, which explains three of the four fundamental forces of nature: the strong force (the force that holds particles together in the nuclei); the weak force (that causes particles to decay); and the electromagnetic force (which governs electricity, magnetism and electromagnetic waves such as light, and the basic building blocks of matter). It doesn’t, however, explain gravity.

Science Café is usually held the first Tuesday of each month. In October, the café’s host will be Dean Grubbs, a fish researcher and marine ecologist at the FSU Coastal Marine Lab.