Secondary: Rapid Response Assemblies
DISCOVERY OF THE HIGGS BOSON?
By Gordon Lamont
Suitable for Key Stages 3 and 4
To explain and celebrate this exciting scientific discovery and consider its implications.
Preparation and resources
You will need any two objects of roughly similar size but of clearly different weights, such as:
- a full bottle of water and an empty one
- a box full of books and an empty box
- some cotton wool and a similarly sized book.
Show the two objects and ask which is the heavier. This will be more effective if you use a light box and a heavier box (or bags), because you could ask a student to lift them both and then reveal why one is heavier than the other. Point out that it is obvious very quickly which is heavier, but ask what we really mean when we say that something is heavy. Often, when we’re not speaking in scientific terms we mean that it feels heavy to us.
- Point out that what we call weight is really the effect of gravity on the mass, the amount of ‘stuff’ that makes up an object. One of the objects you showed has more mass than the other and so Earth’s gravity acts on it more strongly, making it feel heavier to us. If we were in the International Space Station, the objects wouldn’t feel heavy because there is no gravity there, but they would still have their mass, the basic material of which they are composed.
- So thinking about the weight or mass of things is not as simple as it seems, and scientists at Cern in Geneva have been asking questions about mass and where it comes from. They have been running a huge experiment using the Large Hadron Collider to accelerate atoms to amazing speeds, before crashing them into each other to break them apart to see what they are made of. They have been looking for something they call the Higgs Boson particle, named after Professor Peter Higgs, one of the scientists who first proposed the idea in the 1960s. (Many journalists and others have referred to the Higgs Boson particle as the ‘God’ particle.) The idea is that all of space is filled by a ‘Higgs field’, and other particles get their mass when they travel through it – a bit like the heavy feeling you get if you wade through water, or fight your way through a crowd of people all flowing around you.
Anyhow, the scientists think they’ve found the particle! They’ve certainly found something very like it, but it will take a while before they can be sure how it behaves and how it fits with their theories. However that turns out, this is a fantastic discovery.
- ‘So what?’ you might be asking yourself. ‘What has all this high-level science to do with me?’
Given that the scientists are still asking lots of questions, you’re not likely to get to play with a Higgs Boson particle on the sports field or even in the school lab! Humans seem to have a deep desire to find things out, to explore and understand. For some, this is about testing their own limits in sport, or creating art, music and drama. For others, it is about physical exploration – going places, meeting different people and understanding their cultures. For the scientists at Cern, it is about the very fundamental nature of the physical world – the atom and what lies within it. This discovery may well turn out to be one of the most fundamental of all time. No one knows where it will lead but there’s a very good chance that this new understanding will lead to new technologies and inventions which we cannot yet imagine just as Shakespeare or Elizabeth I would not have dreamed of smartphones, vaccines or space stations.
Time for reflection
Humans must explore, discover and understand.
Where does your desire for exploration take you?
Take time to give thanks for our amazing ability to chase after the answers, and for the people who are clever enough to do that for us.
Use some of the music from ‘Oxygène’ by Jean-Michel Jarre (widely available to download).