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.
Featured updates on this topic
The ATLAS experiment at CERN has found evidence for the Higgs boson decaying to two tau particles
The 2013 Nobel prize in physics has been awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs for their theoretical work on the Higgs boson
Physicists from the ATLAS and CMS collaborations explain how they came to identify the new particle of 2012 as "a Higgs boson"
With two and a half times more data analysed than in July last year, ATLAS and CMS find that the new particle looks more and more like a Higgs boson
At ICHEP in Valencia, Spain, all four LHC experiments presented new results from the LHC’s first run. Run 2 physics holds much promise
Results reported by ATLAS and CMS discuss the decay of Higgs bosons directly to fermions, the particles that make up matter
Teach the machines: CERN launches competition to develop machine-learning analysis techniques for Higgs data
At the Moriond conference CMS presented the best constraint yet of the Higgs boson “width”, a parameter that determines the particle’s lifetime
On his first trip to CERN since sharing the Nobel prize in physics last year with Peter Higgs, François Englert talks Higgs bosons and supersymmetry
Watch François Englert explain the equations for the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism that gives particles mass, with the help of a blackboard
Higgs boson decays, a Nobel prize for Higgs and Englert and a huge Open Days event were among the big stories at CERN this year
The CMS collaboration have measured the decay of the Higgs boson to pairs of bottom quarks and to pairs of tau leptons
CERN, along with Peter Higgs and François Englert, today receives the Prince of Asturias Award during a ceremony in Spain
Cameras were rolling in CERN's building 40 when members of the ATLAS and CMS collaborations heard the news from Stockholm live yesterday