Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Mass, Higg’s Boson and analogies


What is mass? What do we mean when we say a body has more mass?

The question of mass has plagued us for centuries.

Or has it??

In fact, it hasn’t! Mass is something that we all instinctively understand. My desk is much more massive than the small table nearby, some of my friends, in fact I would say, most of my friends, are more massive than me, Mount Everest is more massive than my car, etc. Those things which are more massive have more ‘matter’ in them and hence weigh heavier. It is perfectly logical and simple. In fact, to our common sense understanding, it is energy which is more mysterious, unseen but yet acting on massive objects, simple liquid petrol which can yet move our car, and being expensive at that!

In fact, mass was quite simple and intuitive for science also under Newton and for the successive years. It was Einstein really who shattered our complacency regarding mass, saying it increased, not only when we added more mass to an object, but even when it moved at great speeds. Since then, quantum physics has tied itself further into knots in trying to explain it, and at present an understanding of mass, by detecting the Higg’s boson, is the most vital and eagerly looked forward experiment in science. Mass has become, like everything under modern science, much more mysterious and difficult since science tried to explain it than it had been before!

Mass in modern science has two main qualities:

Inertia: Inertia is the property of mass in that it when it is at rest, it resists attempts to bring it into motion and when it is in motion, it resists attempts to bring it to rest. It is easy enough to understand this; when we push a car, we have to use force to bring it into motion, and also to stop it. The more massive the car, the more force we have to use to push it and also to stop it.

Energy equivalence: mass can be ‘converted’, or more properly ‘expressed as equivalent’, to energy. Mass and energy are two sides of a coin, they both always coexist, we can describe a certain amount of energy in terms of mass and a certain amount of mass in terms of energy. This equivalence is ruled by the equation E=MC².

E=MC² may make it appear that whenever there is increase of energy, there is increase of mass. However, this can lead to confusion. A trade secret of physicists is that they use this equation, E=MC², only where they mean rest mass, but in their writings and analogies for non-physicists, they frequently use such terms as ‘mass increases with velocity’ etc. However, there are many problems in using terms like relativistic mass or saying an object increases in mass when it moves and so on. Such inappropriate analogies are used commonly by scientists in writing for laymen, but would not be used in scientific papers. More on that here, Mass and E=MC².

Here I would like to point out one such analogy which has this subtle defect when describing the Higg’s mechanism.

Mass is explained in quantum physics in terms of the Higg’s mechanism and Higg’s condensate, or ocean.

Physicists like to show off their trade. It is the specialty of quantum physics that it is very counterintuitive. During our growing up years, we have developed an intuitive understanding of things like what is an object, what is its position, motion, size, length, weight, etc. Quantum physics in describing small particles goes against all these conventional ideas. Physicists love to dazzle us with their array of counterintuitive ideas. These ideas are counterintuitive to us, but physicists have learnt to leave their intuition behind and hence they ‘understand’ them.

In fact, it is not only quantum physics which provide us with counter intuitive ideas. One of the most counterintuitive ideas is the dilatation of time in relativity, the twin in the rocket coming back younger. In western society, perhaps the most counter intuitive scientific idea has been evolution, which many people still do not accept. How counterintuitive an idea can be is related to our cultural programming and this is shown by the fact that in India evolution was not much of a problem to accept because of the theories of Hinduism, and within a few years of propounding the theory by Darwin, Swami Vivekananda was talking about it in his speeches showing how it matched with Hindu philosophy.

One of the things that quantum physicists specially love to show off is the wave-particle duality of existence, shown by the double slit experiment. Most quantum physics books and sites will start off with a lengthy explanation of this, and because this is the first quantum impossibility that physicists have had to swallow, right in their first year, they have digested this well. Other strange ideas like wave collapse, the extreme small sizes down to point sizes of particles, the bizarre reactions, properties like ‘charm’ and ‘truth’ are also shown off. Not so well shown off is non-locality, which is difficult to understand even for the physicists, and most of them are not very comfortable with it.

But the idea that is the least comfortable for quantum physicists is the idea of mass. Hardly any book or paper on quantum physics meant for popular reading will deal with mass, and it is mentioned only perfunctorily. This is because here the exact opposite is true — we can understand mass intuitively, and physicists cannot ‘understand’ it.

Here I must clarify that I am not really suggesting the physicists are in some conspiracy and hiding a secret about mass They do not write for us only because the ideas for mass are not yet fully firmed up in physics. Mass in fact is one of the most hotly debated topics within the physics fraternity; physicists have fought tooth and nail with the government to establish huge accelerators which hopefully will demonstrate their ideas on mass experimentally, and only then will they accept it as truth. If the experiment fails, physicists will without doubt be the first to proclaim that they were wrong and try to formulate alternative theories. But if it succeeds and physics understands mass much more firmly, we can hope to see more explanations of it in popular literature.

But at present, it must be said that there is hardly any popular writing by physicists on mass,(the book, ‘The God Particle’ by Leon Lederman is a notable exception) and the most that physics books and websites or popular papers have to offer on the Higg’s mechanism is an analogy, which I consider to be defective.

Mass in the present ‘Standard Model’ of quantum physics is explained in terms of the Higg’s mechanism and Higg’s field.

The Higg’s field (Higg’s ocean, Higg’s condensate, Higg’s ether) is one of the strangest entities in quantum physics. It basically states that all around us, we are surrounded by a field of virtual masses, masses which have the potential of existence and which can exist at any time, if the conditions are right. (see Vacuum)

At the beginning of the big bang, this field was in perfect symmetry, like a ball standing on a flat plane, and there was no tendency for the masses to manifest. But as the universe cooled down, the symmetry of the Higg’s field was broken and it became like a ball standing at the tip of a cone, unstable and ready to roll down, or manifest as mass. Which direction it took to roll down was facilitated by the presence of particles and their interactions with it. On particles which mediate the weak nuclear force, it manifested due to interaction with the weak force, and on quarks and leptons due to chirality. In this way, the Higg’s field gave rise to the masses of all particles right at the beginning of the big bang. This mass, which all particles have intrinsically, is called rest mass.

All these phenomena, the breakdown of symmetry and the fluctuations in the field which can give rise to masses is well denoted mathematically. What the mathematics fail to show though is why different particles have different masses, this is not predictable by the physics and is one of the great mysteries of mass.

However, the mass of a composite particle is not just dependent on the rest mass but on the energy within the particle. A proton for example is composed of fermions, the quarks, and bosons. But the total mass of a proton is not just the sum of the rest masses of the quarks and bosons that compose it. It is in fact much much more than that. Only about 1% of the mass is due to the rest masses and the rest 99% is due to the energy of the quarks and bosons, which are whirring about very fast within the proton. To find the mass of a proton, we calculate the total energy within the proton, which is the sum of the rest energy of the quarks and bosons, plus the energy of their interactions, and from this rest energy of the proton, we can calculate its rest mass using E=MC².

How exactly E=MC² works in relation to Higg’s field in cases other than giving rest mass to particles is not known. The role of Higg’s mechanism is fully verified only in cases of particles gaining their rest mass, and this is how we should see it till we have further knowledge of mass. We do not as yet know anything about interactions with Higgs in such cases as relativistic mass, etc.

Particles which do not interact with the Higg’s field do not acquire rest mass. The photon, the quanta or particle of the electromagnetic field, does not interact with the Higg’s field and hence its rest mass is always zero. A photon, unlike any other particle, is pure energy.

From the Higg’s field, as determined by the calculations, can also precipitate out by itself a particle of mass, the Higg’s boson. It does not have any direction and is a scalar particle. It can be considered to be the counterpoint of a photon in that it is pure mass, so to say. But of course, in calculations, all mass is equivalent to energy and energy is equivalent to mass, so there is neither pure mass nor pure energy. It is this Higg’s boson that is being so sought after at present in the huge accelerators, since finding it will prove or disprove all theories about the Higg’s mechanism and field.

To describe the Higg’s field, an analogy is given that has become increasingly popular. The story around this analogy is that in 1993, the British science minister, William Waldegrave, gave a challenge to scientists to come up with an appropriate analogy to describe the Higg’s field and David Miller from University College, London, gave this analogy and won a champagne bottle.

The analogy goes like this:

“Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-prime minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is, she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is harder to stop, and once stopped she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process has to be restarted. In three dimensions, and with the complications of relativity, this is the Higg’s mechanism.”

(From New Scientist, 10 April 1999, Gordon Kane)

Now the main point is that this analogy, as it would be commonly understood by a non-physicist who first comes into contact with it, has some subtle defects. I am stressing ‘commonly understood’, because in its exact wording it is quite all right.

Analogies are given in order to understand complex facts with examples from something that we can understand. We are usually prone to taking a literal interpretation of the analogy and relate it directly to the issue that we are trying to understand.

In this case, what does the literal interpretation suggest?

In the first place, it explains inertia of rest very well. The prime minister has hard work going through the clusters, and so she faces an inertia of rest. But it does not explain inertia of motion at all. The workers clustering around her will impede her, and her natural tendency will be to come to a stop, which goes so contrary to what we mean by mass. When a particle acquires mass, it also acquires the tendency to continue in motion so that it becomes more difficult to stop, but this is not at all suggested by the analogy.

Again, most importantly, the workers clustering around her do not suggest the impression of the workers actually hanging on to her, because in our ordinary life we do not expect the workers to hold on to the prime minister. But this is a vital part of understanding the mechanism of mass, that mass from the Higg’s condensate ‘hang on’, or couple to the particle, so that they become an intrinsic part of the particle itself and not a part of the field. In this example, the only thing that seems to happen is that the field imparts the property of inertia to the object and does not add anything intrinsic to the particle. Mass in this example is a property of the field only and not a part of the particle. It is only if the particles from the field hang on to the particle itself that we can understand mass as something intrinsic to the particle and not just an interaction with a field. This is the only way that inertia of motion can be explained.

Because of this defect, this analogy does not give a clear idea at all about the Higg’s mechanism. Trying to get an idea of the Higg's field from this analogy might lead to a misuderstanding of the idea of mass.Mass in this example seemed to be nothing more than inertia of rest, and most importantly, it is not an intrinsic part of the particle but non–existent, only an effect of the field.

Of course, reading the description carefully, one can see that the author had suggested, “Because of the knot of people always clustered around her, she acquires a greater mass than normal...Once moving she is harder to stop”.

But this is not suggested by the context of the analogy and is difficult to understand from the example itself.

I would make subtle changes in the analogy which I feel give a much better idea of the Higg’s field than this.

In my analogy, instead of a room of sedate people, we can imagine a street crowded with people who are all fighting with each other. This is to give a sense of the broken symmetry of the Higg’s field. Within this street move the particles which are like small trucks carrying people. Everyone on the street wants to move out from this world, and they all clamber onto the truck. To suggest a dynamic interaction with the Higg's as a particle moves through it, we can say that as the truck passes along, the people it reaches clamber on and throw out the earlier people, but I do not feel that it is necessary to say this. Importantly, we do not yet know the sizes of the trucks of different particles, and we are not sure why some particles have bigger trucks and hence have more mass than others.

This analogy I feel corrects the defects of the previous analogy. It suggests that the mass given by the Higg's field becomes a part of the particle itself, as the ‘people’, i.e, the mass particles, clamber on to the ‘truck’, ie, the elementary particle, and it gives an idea of both inertia of rest and inertia of motion. We know that a heavier truck, that is, one with a greater load on it, would be both harder to start with a push and also harder to stop. Of course, many other analogies could also give a better picture, buth whatever the analogy that is chosen, I feel that it is important that it gives a sense of mass being a part of the particle itself, and also of inertia of motion.

In this context, a question may be raised as to whether a mass is really intrinsic to a particle, something that the Higg's mechanism ‘gives’ to it, or whether it is really an effect of the field only and not directly related to the particle. The question cannot be said to have been finally decided till we understand mass fully. But the fact that the Higg’s boson can be precipitated out of the Higg’s field shows that mass indeed is something that the Higg’s field can ‘give’ to the particles. Mass is not just the resistance offered to a particle in a force field, but actually something which can materialize, in this case as the Higg’s boson. Mass is an actual ‘thing’, the ‘substance’ of the Higg’s boson, and not just an effect of a field. Hence simply explaining mass as a resistance in the Higg's field is not accurate, at least as far as present knowledge goes. There are some recent hypotheses that suggest that there is no such thing as mass and the property of inertia is the property of a field like the ZPF field, but this is not accepted till now and it goes against the Standard Model and all of present quantum physics. Of course, if the Higg's Boson fails to materialize, we may well have to think of alternate theories to the Standard Model, but till then it would be more appropriate to stick to known science and consider mass as something intrinsic to the particle itself.

The first time a person encounters a new concept is very important. If he or she gets a wrong idea fixated in the mind, it is much more difficult later on to correct this. I remember from my own experience that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle was taught in my high school textbooks and by my teachers as nothing more than the fact that we cannot measure small objects accurately as our big clumsy tools of measurements disturb such small objects. This is a common misunderstanding of the uncertainty principle, but this still appears much more commonly throughout the web than the actual statement, which is that this uncertainty is an intrinsic part of the particle’s existence and even theoretically we cannot determine both the position and momentum of an object simultaneously. This is due to the fact that quantum particles have a dual wave-particle existence.

The publicity that the Super Hadron Collider has attracted means that a lot more people will be looking up the Higg’s mechanism and Higg’s boson. They will then come across this analogy, since even the CERN site has this analogy. In fact on CERN it is in an even more basic form which makes it more difficult to understand inertia of motion.

The CERN analogy:

“Imagine you're at a Hollywood party. The crowd is rather thick, and evenly distributed around the room, chatting. When the big star arrives, the people nearest the door gather around her. As she moves through the party, she attracts the people closest to her, and those she moves away from return to their other conversations. By gathering a fawning cluster of people around her, she's gained momentum, an indication of mass. She's harder to slow down than she would be without the crowd. Once she's stopped, it's harder to get her going again.”

This also gives the distinct impression that mass is not something connected with the particle itself but only an imaginary term for the inertia of rest which is got from the field.

Hence there is an urgent need for physicists to look carefully through this analogy and see it through the eyes of someone who is trying to form a basic concept of mass and Higg’s field, and ensure that it does not mislead anyone.

This analogy is derived apparently from the way electrons seem to get heavier when they move through a metallic solid. Here we can see why the defects in the analogy arose. The electron in a crystal acquires extra energy which is the energy required to move it in the field, and this energy is derived from the field. To convert this energy into mass through E=MC² gives us the relativistic mass of the electron, which is a dubious entity. It is unfortunate that this example of relativistic mass gain should be used in an analogy for Higg’s field. See here, Mass and E=MC².


In fact in my opinion, any analogy should have focused only on the Higg’s ocean giving mass at the beginning of the big bang. This is the only function about which we are unreservedly sure. There is still many issues to be resolved in the function of Higg’s in giving relativistic mass, and certainly very huge issues in its function in such aspects as crystals making electrons heavier or superconductors making photons heavier. It is unfortunate that an unresolved function of Higg’s is being used to popularize the function of the Higg’s field, specially at this time when there is bound to be a rush of popular interest in it.

* People who read this also read:

* To read more on Advaita Vedanta and Yoga and its harmony with modern science and reason, you can go through my book on Amazon:

Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

The Circle of Fire: The Metaphysics of Yoga

// //

Home Book Discussion Excerpts Reviews Contact Us
Articles Author Info Discussion Forum Live Chat Blog