In the 1970s, physicists realized that there are very close ties between two of the four fundamental forces – the weak force and the electromagnetic force. The two forces can be described within the same theory, which forms the basis of the Standard Model. This “unification” implies that electricity, magnetism, light and some types of radioactivity are all manifestations of a single underlying force known as the electroweak force.
The basic equations of the unified theory correctly describe the electroweak force and its associated force-carrying particles, namely the photon, and the W and Z bosons, except for a major glitch. All of these particles emerge without a mass. While this is true for the photon, we know that the W and Z have mass, nearly 100 times that of a proton. Fortunately, theorists Robert Brout, François Englert and Peter Higgs made a proposal that was to solve this problem. What we now call the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism gives a mass to the W and Z when they interact with an invisible field, now called the “Higgs field”, which pervades the universe.
Just after the big bang, the Higgs field was zero, but as the universe cooled and the temperature fell below a critical value, the field grew spontaneously so that any particle interacting with it acquired a mass. The more a particle interacts with this field, the heavier it is. Particles like the photon that do not interact with it are left with no mass at all. Like all fundamental fields, the Higgs field has an associated particle – the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is the visible manifestation of the Higgs field, rather like a wave at the surface of the sea.