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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Higgs Boson-free Beer


Folks gain weight for a variety of reasons. They may eat too much and exercise too little. Their metabolism may be influenced by substances known as dietary obesogens. Even viral infection has been implicated in obesity. But what about Higgs bosons? What are they, and how do they make you fat?

The Higgs boson is an elementary particle of matter predicted by the so-called Standard Model of particle physics, a suite of equations that explains how three of the four fundamental forces of nature (remember earth, air, fire, and water?) work. The Higgs particle belongs to a class of particles, bosons, that includes photons, gluons, and mesons (and for my grandkids’ class of tots, you’d think, crayons). Until recently, the Higgs particle was the only one predicted by the Standard Model that had not yet been observed empirically – again, much like my not-yet-born grandkids. (When are they going to have children?)

In theory, the quantum “field” associated with the Higgs boson fills all of space and explains why fundamental particles such as quarks and electrons have mass. This Higgs field can be pictured as a pool of molasses that "sticks" to the otherwise massless particles traveling through it, imbuing them with mass (which allows them to form the components of atoms). 

Fig. 2
Physicists search for elementary particles like the Higgs with colliders or atom smashers, the largest of which is currently the 17-mile-around Large Hadron Collider built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) (Fig. 1). The Hadron can accelerate elementary particles to energies of seven teraelectronvolts (7 x 1012  electronvolts or 7 TeV) and was designed to test the predictions of various theories, particularly that of the Standard Model, for the elusive Higgs boson (Fig. 2).  
Fig. 1

Recently, physicists from CERN announced they may have at last found the long-sought Higgs.

Aside from explaining how the Universe works,  the discovery of the Higgs boson could have even more important ramifications: it could lead to a solution for the obesity epidemic! More than one-third of U.S. adults and seventeen percent of children and adolescents in this country are obese. Some of these folks (Fig. 3) might require as much as 7 TeV of energy just to hoist themselves out of bed in the morning – and that’s without accelerating. For them, its as though the Higgs field we slosh about in all day really were made of molasses.

Fig. 3
What if  the chefs at CERN could produce Higgs boson-free matter that would be the building blocks of massless food?  You could eat as much of this food as you like without taking on mass yourself. Higgs boson-free beer, for example, would go to your head but not to your midriff.  Imagine delicious boson-free Boston cream pie so light and fluffy you couldn’t even see it, let alone get fat on it. 

It wouldn’t be the first time physicists used atom smashers to create novel elements that don’t exist in nature. Roentgenium, copernicium, and darmstadtium, all recent additions to the periodic table, were created in collider experiments. 

As a teenager, I attended high school at a parochial boarding academy in Richmond, Virginia, where I took meals in the dining hall. For us boarders, the least favorite dish was “mystery meat,” a ground-up concoction resembling over-cooked hamburger (think Meatwad from [Adult Swim's] Aqua Teen Hunger Force) that seemed to appear and reappear for days on end. It may have contained dysnosmium, an unnatural element like darmstadtium unique to the kitchens of boarding schools where collisions of all kinds abound. I think the cook, a querulous, peevish sort who hated us, may have added it as a preservative. It worked, too. Since no one ever ate mystery meat, it was invariably preserved for the next meal.  

Obesity was less of a problem back then.

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