Barry Eitel

While the field of physics doesn’t usually receive a whole lot of headline ink or cable news airtime, you may have heard of this year’s possible discovery of the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is a particle that has eluded and tantalized scientists for decades; its detection could change the world of physics.

How important would a confirmation of the Higgs boson existence be? Some media savvy scientists call it the “God particle.”

While many not-attention-starved researchers think that’s a misnomer, the particle is still crucial to our understanding of the physical laws of the universe.

Basically, the Higgs boson might be the key to understanding how matter attains mass.

Cue the terrible joke about a priest changing his name to Higgs so he could be better at giving mass.

The subatomic particle was detected by scientists using the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland—a massive particle accelerator with a circumference of 17 miles. Protons were smashed together and, in the resulting wreckage, physicists believe they detected the never-before-seen particle. They announced the exciting discovery in early July.

What the Higgs boson actually is, unfortunately, is somewhat hard to explain (complicated by the fact that there might actually be several Higgs bosons).

Scientists define a boson as a force carrier, something that can allow particles to exert force onto each other. Bosons cause a balloon to stick to a wall after you rub it on your hair—the balloon and the wall are actually exchanging particles, bosons known as photons that have no mass but transmit electromagnetic force.

“In the 1960s, Peter Higgs and some of his contemporaries worked out a mathematical way of predicting the mass of a particle by its interaction with what became known as the Higgs field,” says physicist Jonas Mureika. “In a nutshell, when different massless particles come in contact with the Higgs field, they ‘stick’ to it to varying degrees. Each of the particles then acquires a different mass. The Higgs mechanism helps us predict how much mass will be distributed to each of these particles.”

“It’s not really the Higgs boson that confers mass on other particles, but the field of force from which the boson is made,” Tom Siegfried of Science News writes. “Particles that interact with the Higgs field acquire mass because the field resists change in their state of motion; such resistance is inertia, the hallmark of mass.”

The vast majority of the mass of everything we experience is made of the protons and neutrons in atoms, which are made of subatomic particles known as quarks. Just a sliver of the total mass of quarks is caused by the Higgs field, but, theoretically, it’s this field that gives the quarks any mass at all to start with.

And this is why physicists are excited.

As Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of the laboratory that operates the LHC, claims: “The properties of this boson might open up a window into the DNA of the universe.”