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The Higgs Mechanism
Unlike protons and neutrons, truly elementary particles--such as quarks and electrons--are not made up of smaller pieces. The explanation of how they acquire their rest masses gets to the very heart of the problem of the origin of mass. As I noted above, the account proposed by contemporary theoretical physics is that fundamental particle masses arise from interactions with the Higgs field. But why is the Higgs field present throughout the universe? Why isn't its strength essentially zero on cosmic scales, like the electromagnetic field? What is the Higgs field? T
he Higgs field is a quantum field. That may sound mysterious, but the fact is that all elementary particles arise as quanta of a corresponding quantum field. The electromagnetic field is also a quantum field (its corresponding elementary particle is the photon). So in this respect, the Higgs field is no more enigmatic than electrons and light. The Higgs field does, however, differ from all other quantum fields in three crucial ways.
The first difference is somewhat technical. All fields have a property called spin, an intrinsic quantity of angular momentum that is carried by each of their particles. Particles such as electrons have spin 1/2 and most particles associated with a force, such as the photon, have spin 1. The Higgs boson (the particle of the Higgs field) has spin 0. Having 0 spin enables the Higgs field to appear in the Lagrangian in different ways than the other particles do, which in turn allows--and leads to--its other two distinguishing features.
The second unique property of the Higgs field explains how and why it has nonzero strength throughout the universe. Any system, including a universe, will tumble into its lowest energy state, like a ball bouncing down to the bottom of a valley. For the familiar fields, such as the electromagnetic fields that give us radio broadcasts, the lowest energy state is the one in which the fields have zero value (that is, the fields vanish)--if any nonzero field is introduced, the energy stored in the fields increases the net energy of the system. But for the Higgs field, the energy of the universe is lower if the field is not zero but instead has a constant nonzero value. In terms of the valley metaphor, for ordinary fields the valley floor is at the location of zero field; for the Higgs, the valley has a hillock at its center (at zero field) and the lowest point of the valley forms a circle around the hillock. The universe, like a ball, comes to rest somewhere on this circular trench, which corresponds to a nonzero value of the field. That is, in its natural, lowest energy state, the universe is permeated throughout by a nonzero Higgs field.
The final distinguishing characteristic of the Higgs field is the form of its interactions with the other particles. Particles that interact with the Higgs field behave as if they have mass, proportional to the strength of the field times the strength of the interaction. The masses arise from the terms in the Lagrangian that have the particles interacting with the Higgs field.
Our understanding of all this is not yet complete, however, and we are not sure how many kinds of Higgs fields there are. Although the Standard Model requires only one Higgs field to generate all the elementary particle masses, physicists know that the Standard Model must be superseded by a more complete theory. Leading contenders are extensions of the Standard Model known as Supersymmetric Standard Models (SSMs). In these models, each Standard Model particle has a so-called superpartner (as yet undetected) with closely related properties[see 'The Dawn of Physics beyond the Standard Model,' by Gordon Kane; Scientific American, June 2003]. With the Supersymmetric Standard Model, at least two different kinds of Higgs fields are needed. Interactions with those two fields give mass to the Standard Model particles. They also give some (but not all) mass to the superpartners. The two Higgs fields give rise to five species of Higgs boson: three that are electrically neutral and two that are charged. The masses of particles called neutrinos, which are tiny compared with other particle masses, could arise rather indirectly from these interactions or from yet a third kind of Higgs field.
Theorists have several reasons for expecting the SSM picture of the Higgs interaction to be correct. First, without the Higgs mechanism, the W and Z bosons that mediate the weak force would be massless, just like the photon (which they are related to), and the weak interaction would be as strong as the electromagnetic one. Theory holds that the Higgs mechanism confers mass to the W and Z in a very special manner. Predictions of that approach (such as the ratio of the W and Z masses) have been confirmed experimentally.
Second, essentially all other aspects of the Standard Model have been well tested, and with such a detailed, interlocking theory it is difficult to change one part (such as the Higgs) without affecting the rest. For example, the analysis of precision measurements of W and Z boson properties led to the accurate prediction of the top quark mass before the top quark had been directly produced. Changing the Higgs mechanism would spoil that and other successful predictions.
Third, the Standard Model Higgs mechanism works very well for giving mass to all the Standard Model particles, W and Z bosons, as well as quarks and leptons; the alternative proposals usually do not. Next, unlike the other theories, the SSM provides a framework to unify our understanding of the forces of nature. Finally, the SSM can explain why the energy "valley" for the universe has the shape needed by the Higgs mechanism. In the basic Standard Model the shape of the valley has to be put in as a postulate, but in the SSM that shape can be derived mathematically.