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The Higgs boson has captured the world’s attention from the moment it was announced the Large Hardron Collider was being built to find it. The elementary particle’s discovery was announced by CERN on 4 July 2012 and is nothing short of monumental as it appears to confirm the existence of the Higgs field. This pervasive field is pivotal to understanding why some fundamental particles have mass. As interesting and exciting as this discovery may be, its consequences and implications remain out of reach for the general public. Future Learn, a privately company owned by Open University, along with the University of Edinburgh have started a seven week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “The Discovery of the Higgs Boson” to introduce the theoretical tools needed to appreciate this discovery.
The course starts with classical mechanics. While it may seem like a strange place to start, especially given the course’s goals, it is a good one. Rather than jumping straight into Quantum Mechanics, classical mechanics makes the mathematics is accessible to students, especially those who have completed A-Level Mathematics or done Calculus. The course doesn’t assume many of the fundamental conservation laws in physics are true but rather goes through the mathematically rigorous process of proving these concepts to students. This also allows students to see how the behavior of physical systems can be deduced. Though some of the physical principles will need to be revised as the course progresses, the mathematical tools students would have acquired remain the same. Student can thus build on what they have learned before.
An Evolutionary Revolution
One of the more interesting questions asked was, “Why is the Higgs boson discovery important?” Dr. Victoria Martin, a reader in particle physics at the University of Edinburgh, answers that in one of the course’s modules. In her video, she says the Sun is a massive burning ball of hydrogen and helium and it is a mystery why it all hasn’t burned up by now. She says the answer comes from Peter Higgs’ theory which predicts the Higgs boson. It predicts why the nuclear process in the Sun is slow enough that the Sun is still around after 4.6 billion years and provides just the right amount of light and heat to sustain life on Earth.
Science didn’t always believe that the Sun or the Earth, for that matter, was old. In the mid-nineteenth century, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were making the case for biological evolution by natural selection. This theory described a process of slow, gradual changes over time and indicated the Earth had to be very old, at least hundreds of millions of years. This was supported by geologist observations of erosion rates.This posed a problem for the most prominent theoretical physicist of the time, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, who saw evidence that disagreed with Darwin. This guiding light of the Industrial Revolution, whose work in thermodynamics contributed to the steam engine, was a devout Christian who believed in a much younger Earth and with good reason. In 1862, using the thermodynamics of heat conduction, Thomson initial calculations showed that it would take between 20-400 million years for a molten Earth to completely solidify and cool.
This large uncertainty of the Earth’s age were due to uncertainties about the melting temperature of rock. This did not deter Thomson who then set out to calculate the Sun’s age in 1868 using what he knew of the Sun’s energy output. Kelvin rightly assumed the Sun formed from a giant gas cloud and gravity eventually caused the cloud to collapse into a ball. As with any falling mass, the cloud molecules’ potential energy would be converted into kinetic energy. This raise in kinetic energy would turn into heat, raising temperatures to result in star formation in a process known today as the Kelvin-Helmholtz Contraction.
While we know today this is not the way stars generate all their energy, we know this is how the fusion process is started. Based on his assumption that the Sun built up all its heat as it was formed and radiating it away like a hot coal, Kelvin estimated the lifespan of the Sun to be about 30 million years.
The numbers posed a nagging contradiction–the Earth was older than the Sun. Thomson realized he needed to refine his calculations of the Earth’s age. In 1897 Thomson settled on an estimate that the Earth was somewhere between 20-40 million years old. This fit in nicely with his estimation of the Sun’s age.The age of the Earth was an important part to Darwin’s theory of evolution. As a geologist, he had conducted his own studies and concluded that the time needed to wash away the Weald, a valley in south-east England formed of the eroded remains of an anticline, would require 300 million years. Thomson believed that geologists were wrong to assume a steady rate of erosion. Floods and other natural disasters could accelerate this process. Thompson though the geologist’s thinking could use a dose of mathematical rigor. Though Darwin’s observations supported an old Earth, he was so bowled away by Thomson’s analysis that he removed any reference to time scales in later editions of his Origin of the Species.
A Quantum World
Thomson’s opponents argued that his time scales were too short for life to develop. He ignored them. With hindsight, it is easy to see that the brilliant Thomson was wrong and Darwin was right. But should we judge Thomson harshly for not listening to his opponents?
We must be careful when we judge the past and not look through the lens of our own experiences or biases. Thomson lived to 1907, to a time when radioactivity had firmly been established. The observation then by geologists that the Earth could be heated from within by radioactive decay meant that the Earth could be a lot older than Thomson thought. In fact, it was widely believed that the discovery of radioactivity invalidated Thomson’s estimates of the age of the Earth.Despite the discovery of radioactivity, Thomson refused to acknowledge this. He had strong reason to believe that the Sun was younger than 20 million years. Even with an old Earth, without sunlight, there could be no explanation for the sediment record on the Earth’s surface. It wasn’t until the discovery of fusion in the 1930s that this paradox was resolved.
While history has proven Thomson wrong in this debate, we must remember one thing. Given what we knew at the time, Thomson’s calculations and conclusions were correct–his science was sound. We can not fault Thomson for this.
The Higgs Boson CourseThe Higgs boson is the latest addition to our understanding of what happens in our Sun. Just like Thomson demanded a certain mathematical rigor, so too does “The Discovery of the Higgs Boson” course. The course recommends that the week’s module should take about two hours. Though it has been some time since I last sat in a Physics class and while the concepts and proofs were not entirely new, it does take some time to view the lectures and complete the exercises. I think students will realistically have to dedicate more than two hours to complete the week’s exercises.
Overall, it is a strong course that demands a lot of its students. I look forward to the rest of the course.