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Hadron Collider: Whacking The Universe Really Hard

Pressed to explain the Higgs Boson particle at a cocktail party to impress your friends or loved ones, you should not feel embarrassed if you struggle with the task and end up excusing yourself, muttering something about leaving the stove on or making sure the punch bowl hasn’t been emptied.

But fear not, because Yale physics professor Sarah Demers is coming to the University of Vermont today to explain it all. Dr. Demers is a member of the ATLAS Collaboration at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, part of a scientific community that is positively giddy about the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, and she spoke with VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb.

“It’s trying to answer this question of mass and fundamental particles. We’re talking about the tiniest building blocks of matter. Some of these particles have no mass. Which means they’re zipping around at the speed of light. And some of these particles do have mass. The dilemma in particle physics for quite a while has been, how does that happen? And what’s the mechanism for it? So what if there’s a field that exists everywhere in the universe and we just haven’t detected it yet, and the particles that don’t interact with this field don’t have mass. And the particles that do interact with the field do have mass and then mass actually becomes the strength of the interaction with that field. It actually determines the mass of those particles. And the evidence for the field is actually the Higgs Boson particle that we’ve found,” Demers explained.

Demers used a sailing metaphor that she credits to a friend. So imagine you’re on a lake in a boat, we’ll pick Lake Champlain.

“You reach over the side of the boat and you slap the lake. It’s going to send a wave out. You’ve excited the lake. Basically, what we’ve doing at CERN with the large Hadron Collider is whacking the universe really hard in the form of these high energy protons that are colliding. And the idea is that if the Higgs field exists, when we whack the universe hard enough, we should be able to excite that field and create the Higgs Boson particle which we should then be able to see. And that’s a hard game, because smashing these particles together at high energy, we have hundreds of other particles that come out of the collision and trying to find evidence that you had a Higgs Boson that was created there for a fraction of a second it’s not easy,” Demers said.

Dr. Sarah Demers will be speaking Wednesday afternoon at the University of Vermont.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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