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
To celebrate the fourth birthday of the Higgs boson announcement CERN invites you to make your own particle-based pizza
A new citizen science project gives sofa-scientists the chance to search for previously undiscovered particles
Do recent discoveries mean there’s nothing left? Find out what the future holds for theoretical physics in our final In Theory series installment
Today the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented for the first time a combination of their results on the mass of the Higgs boson
Recent publications from CMS use data from the LHC's first run to shed light on the properties of the Higgs boson
Without a doubt, it is a Higgs boson, but is it the Higgs boson of the Standard Model? Run 2 of the LHC find out, says theorist John Ellis
In CERN’s 60th year, the first proof of the existence of the Higgs boson earns a Guinness World Record for CERN, ATLAS and CMS
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