Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) is thrilled at the prospect of investigating a good old-fashioned bank robbery in the most recent episode of SyFy’s Eureka that aired Monday night. Alas, this being Eureka, his euphoria is short lived. He soon discovers that the entire bank has vanished — or rather, it is levitating above the town, just the latest in the usual string of weird occurrences that are the town’s trademark.
See, the town’s scientists have put all kinds of strange things into the bank’s safe deposit vault, including a bit of antimatter and something called a “Higgs field disruptor.” Those who follow particle physics know that the Higgs field (via the Higgs boson) is what gives subatomic particles their mass. So the premise here is that the antimatter disrupts the Higgs field, and various objects in Eureka start to lose mass and float away as a result.
[WARNING: Nerd-gassing ahead!] Let me say upfront that I am a huge fan of Eureka, just for the premise alone: an entire town of brilliantly inventive scientists given free rein to indulge their wackiest ideas, where the high school “in” crowd is comprised of the smartest kids — not the usual TV array of spoiled rich kids, athletes and cheerleaders.
The writing is excellent, showcasing the characters’ humanity with humor and pathos. And I don’t mind when writers take liberties with some of the science, because science should always be in the service of the story when it comes to fiction.
That said, honesty compels me to point out that the bank and other objects would not start to float away if the Higgs field were removed. Okay, things would start to float if their sizes stayed the same, because then you’d get a corresponding decrease in density as their masses decreased. Unfortunately, objects in Eureka wouldn’t stay the same size if the Higgs field disappeared.
That’s because an object’s size is determined by the mass of the electron, which in turn is determined by — the Higgs field. Remove or reduce the Higgs field, and you will change the mass of the electron by default. Specifically, the electron would be lighter, so atoms (and objects) would be bigger. Also? Chemistry would be completely different.
I asked physicist Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance what would happen if you changed the mass of the electron even a little. His response: “Everything would blow up in a massive explosion.” KA-BOOM! Now that’s good television. (And as Zach Weiner, creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal will tell you, the same is true if you change the number of valence electrons in a hydrogen atom. KA-BOOM!)
I’m sure there are plenty of hardcore geeks out there just dying to offer counter-arguments in the comments. Have at it, my fellow nerd-gassers!
The episode also reminded me that, in the quest to make the science behind the Higgs accessible to the general public, we often leave out much of the nuance regarding how, exactly, particles acquire mass.
The standard popular explanation goes something like this. Guests are packed into a room for a chic Hollywood soiree, awaiting the arrival of the Celebrity. When said Celebrity arrives, s/he will immediately attract a cluster of adoring fans as s/he moves through the room, thereby gaining momentum (and mass).
That clustering effect is the Higgs mechanism. Per the Exploratorium: “A sort of lattice (the Higgs field) fills the universe…. Scientists know that when an electron passes through a positively charged crystal lattice of atoms, the electron’s mass can increase as much as 40 times. The same might be true in the Higgs field: a particle moving through it creates a little bit of distortion — like the crowd around the star at the party — and that lends mass to the particle.”
Here’s the twist. In reality, only the tiniest bit of mass in atoms comes from the component particles and the Higgs field. The bulk of mass actually arises from the energy associated with the virtual quarks and gluons that are constantly winking in and out of existence inside protons and neutrons — because energy and mass are equivalent (E=mc2, y’all).
This is called the “QCD energy,” where QCD stands for quantum chromodynamics — the theory whose equations describe the strong nuclear force that binds atomic nuclei together.
Quarks are the smallest known units of matter, combining to make protons and neutrons. Gluons are virtual “messenger” particles, popping in and out of existence constantly to give rise to a quantum field that carries the strong force. There are also virtual quark and anti-quark pairs fluctuating in and out of existence in the quantum vacuum. All these things contribute to the total mass of atomic nuclei.
Just how much of particle masses are due to the QCD energy from virtual quarks and gluons? Well, the proton has a mass of 938 million electron volts (MeV) — the unit of measurement scientists employ for the mass of such tiny things. The proton is made up of two up quarks (each with a mass of 2 MeV) and one down quark (which has a mass of 5 MeV). So only 9 MeV of the proton’s mass is due to the Higgs; the rest (929 MeV) comes from the QCD energy.
What about the neutron, which has a mass of 939 MeV? A neutron has one up quark and two down quarks, for a total of 12 MeV. The remaining 927 MeV comes from the QCD energy. Atoms also have electrons, but the mass gained from an electron would be minimal, since each electron is a mere 0.5 MeV.
It’s kind of mind-blowing: all this stuff we think of as matter? Most of it is just the result of random fluctuations in the quantum vacuum.
Who says a TV show can’t inspire a few ruminations on the nuances of cutting-edge particle physics? I love that the Higgs field featured in an episode of Eureka. And as actor Wil Wheaton, who plays particle physicst Dr. Parrish, shared on his blog, one scene in particular captures the lovable geekitude of scientists:
Particle physicists would totally do that.
Leading image credit: SyFy Channel