Did you know?

Click any word in a definition or example to find the entry for that word

Higgs boson

noun [countable]

in physics, a particle (= an extremely small piece of matter that is part of an atom) that could explain where mass (= the amount of matter that something contains) comes from

'It's like molasses! But sort of like the air! Yet it also behaves like fans of Justin Bieber! Everyone's talking about the Higgs boson, even though there's no really great metaphor for describing what it is and how it works. We know that this particle is responsible for the fact that matter - i.e. the stuff we are made of - has mass. '

CNN 5th July 2012

It might conjure up images of a seafaring officer answering to the name of Higgs, but it's the word boson, not bosun, that has recently hit the spotlight, meaning that if you hear someone talking about Higgs boson, then they're in scientific rather than maritime territory.

the existence of the Higgs boson is a key to answering perhaps the most fundamental question of all, i.e. how does the universe come to exist?

In early July 2012, scientists from CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) claimed to have finally identified a particle whose attributes were consistent with the elusive Higgs boson, a particle that had never previously been detected, but needs to exist in order to substantiate theories about how the universe works.

In the physics lessons of our schooldays, we learn that everything around us is made of atoms, and that inside atoms are protons, electrons and neutrons. The latter three are, in turn, made up of tiny subatomic particles, and scientists have long pondered over how such minute building blocks acquire their substance, or mass. Without mass, particles just couldn't hold together, which means that matter – whether an eyelash, computer keyboard or raindrop, wouldn't exist. One scientist who has attempted to answer this question is British physicist Peter Higgs, who theorized about the existence of a new, 'sticky' particle which created a drag on other particles, thereby giving them mass. More than forty years after his original proposition, it seems that Professor Higgs and his colleagues could have been right all along, as scientists believe they may have at last discovered this long searched-for particle known as the Higgs boson.

Though particle physics isn't usually headline-grabbing stuff, this particular breakthrough has brought the term Higgs boson firmly onto the public radar, even for those of us who left our scientific encounters at the school gate. And it's not too difficult to see what all the fuss is about, because the existence of the Higgs boson is a key to answering perhaps the most fundamental question of all, i.e. how does the universe – the world and all the stuff in it – come to exist? For this reason the Higgs boson is sometimes popularly referred to as the God particle, though this term is not favoured by scientists, including Higgs himself, who feel it overstates the particle's importance and may offend those who are religious.

Background – Higgs boson particle

The term Higgs boson first appeared back in the 1960s, when Professor Higgs and a group of researchers from Britain, Belgium and the US wrote a series of groundbreaking papers describing a theory of how elementary particles acquire mass. The Higgs boson relates to what is known in particle physics as the Standard Model, a theory of nuclear interactions which strives to explain how elementary particles and forces give rise to the world around us.

In physics, boson is the name given to a subatomic particle with a specific set of properties, so named after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. Discovery of the Higgs boson was made possible by experimentation with the Large Hadron Collider, the world's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator which first became operational in 2008.

Though highly effective in capturing the attention of the general public, the term God particle is not a media invention but in fact based on the name of a popular science book by US physicist Leon Lederman, entitled The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (Dell Publishing 1993).

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord. lights out.

This article was first published on 28th August 2012.

Open Dictionary

selfie stick

an expandable stick which you attach to a mobile phone or camera to help you take a selfie …

add a word

Blog

A must for anyone with an interest in the changing face of language. The Macmillan Dictionary blog explores English as it is spoken around the world today.

global English and language change from our blog