A hard thing to see

PHD Comics talks to particle physicist Daniel Whiteson for an exceptionally lucid explanation of the quest for the Higgs boson: what it is, and how the Large Hadron Collider of the  European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was able to observe it, albeit indirectly.

If the predicted effect  [of the Higgs boson’s existence] were huge, it would be very easy to tell the difference between “with Higgs boson” and “not with Higgs boson.” The prediced effect is tiny, so it’s really hard to see. What you need is a huge amount of data. You need to take a gillion collisions before you can see the data. That’s why we run this thing 40 million times a second all day all year.

Or just watch the cartoon. (Hint: Skip the first 40 seconds.)

[Video link]

There’s lots more to learn, says Whiteson:

To make up everyday matter, you only need the electron, the up quark and the down quark. With the up quark and the down quark, you can make a proton, or you can make a neutron. With electrons, protons, and neutrons, you can make any atom. So we only need these three. But we’ve discovered 12 particles. Why do we have them? I don’t know. How many are there? 100? 1,000,000? Only 12? We don’t know.

H/T: Rebecca Rosen