My grandfather is a molecular biologist. Over the holidays I had many opportunities to chat with him, and our conversations often revolved around explaining some aspect of our respective fields. While talking to him, I came up with a chemistry-themed description of the Higgs field, and how it leads to electro-weak symmetry breaking. Very few of you are likely to be chemists, but I think you still might find the metaphor worthwhile.
Picture the Higgs as a mixture of ions, dissolved in water.
In this metaphor, the Higgs field is a sort of “Higgs solution”. Overall, this solution should be uniform: if you have more ions of a certain type in one place than another, over time they will dissolve until they reach a uniform mixture again. In this metaphor, the Higgs particle detected by the LHC is like a brief disturbance in the fluid: by stirring the solution at high energy, we’ve managed to briefly get more of one type of ion in one place than the average concentration.
What determines the average concentration, though?
Essentially, it’s arbitrary. If this were really a chemistry experiment, it would depend on the initial conditions: which ions we put in to the mixture in the first place. In physics, quantum mechanics plays a role, randomly selecting one option out of the many possibilities.
(Note that this metaphor doesn’t explain why there has to be a solution, why the water can’t just be “pure”. A setup that required this would probably be chemically complicated enough to confuse nearly everybody, so I’m leaving that feature out. Just trust that “no ions” isn’t one of our options.)
Up till now, the choice of mixture didn’t matter very much. But different ions interact with other chemicals in different ways, and this has some interesting implications.
Suppose we have a tube filled with our Higgs solution. We want to shoot some substance through the tube, and collect it on the other side. This other substance is going to represent a force.
If our force substance doesn’t react with the ions in our Higgs solution, it will just go through to the other side. If it does react, though, then it will be slowed down, and only some of it will get to the other side, possibly none at all.
You can think of the electro-weak force as a mixture of these sorts of substances. Normally, there is no way to tell the different substances apart. Just like the different Higgs solutions, different parts of the electro-weak force are arbitrary.
However, once we’ve chosen a Higgs solution, things change. Now, different parts of our electro-weak substance will behave differently. The parts that react with the ions in our Higgs solution will slow down, and won’t make it through the tube, while the parts that don’t interact will just flow on through.
We call the part that gets through the tube electromagnetism, and the part that doesn’t the weak nuclear force. Electromagnetism is long-range, its waves (light) can travel great distances. The weak nuclear force is short-range, and doesn’t have an effect outside of the scale of atoms.
The important thing to take away from this is that the division between electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force is totally arbitrary. Taken by themselves, they’re equivalent parts of the same, electro-weak force. It’s only because some of them interact with the Higgs, while others don’t, that we distinguish those parts from each other. If the Higgs solution were a different mixture (if the Higgs field had different charges) then a different part of the electroweak force would be long-range, and a different part would be short-range.
We wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, though. We’d see a long-range force, and a short-range force, and a Higgs field. In the end, our world would be completely the same, just based on a different, arbitrary choice.