Tag Archives: Higgs boson


The news is all abuzz with the confirmation (at the 5-sigma level, which is enough certainty for most people) of the Higgs boson. This is particle physics, so of course it’s pretty much Greek or Sanskrit to most people. But even if they’re all at sea, people still want to stay abreast of these things.

So… first, boson is not related to bosun (which is from boatswain, which is what you call the guy who’s in charge of the equipment and the crew work on deck on a ship). And it is not related to bosom, which has old Germanic roots. (It’s also not related to bazongas.) Nope, it’s from… wait for it… Sanskrit and Greek.

There are two classes of elementary particles: fermions and bosons. They are named after two pioneering physicists: Enrico Fermi and Satyendra Nath Bose. Fermions include electrons, quarks (some of which combine to make protons and neutrons), and a few other particles (neutrinos and mesons). No two fermions can occupy the same quantum state simultaneously; that’s a defining characteristic, and leads to the differentiations that have created matter as we know it.

Bosons, on the other hand, can occupy the same state. They’re fungible and you can herd them like sheep – into lasers, for instance: photons are bosons. There are three other elementary bosons – whoops, four. There are three that fill in the tidy grid that classifies elementary particles – they mediate the strong force and the weak force, and I think if I start explaining all these terms for noobs we’ll be here for a while (“o snob,” you think) – and then there’s the Higgs boson. Which is needed just because there’s nothing in the model for all those other particles that requires any of them to have mass. So there needs to be some all-embracing – catholic – particle that celebrates, I mean gives, mass. (You may know they call it the “God particle.”)

I’m not going to give a long explanation of the function and nature of the Higgs boson here when other people do it so well – for instance, this great video made from an interview with Daniel Whiteson of CERN, and even this tidy little article from the BBC. I want to get back to this word boson. This is, after all, a word tasting note. Knowing all about what the word signifies is an important part of that, but brevity is the soul of notes, eh?

I said boson comes from Sanskrit and Greek. Satyendra Nath Bose was Bengali, and his name – a fairly high-caste family name that’s been around for a millennium in Bengal – is descended from Sanskrit, and means (I am told) “forest dweller”. It’s a very common name in Bengal, and now around the world; another bearer is Amar Bose, an MIT professor who started a company that’s become pretty famous for making stereophonic equipment.

Where’s the Greek from? The on, which is the same on you see on electron – just the Greek neuter nominative suffix (various particles have this on ending, all modelled on electron, which for its part comes from the Greek word for “amber”, a substance that sparks when you rub it). Does that make on an elementary particle of English? Depends on how you spin it, I guess. Morphemes – which this on is in the etymological sense – are the smallest meaningful units, but then there are phonemes, the pseudo-individual sounds we stream together to say morphemes (pseudo-individual because, as I say, they run together when we say them, more like waves than particles, but when we hear them we identify them as separate: it’s our own linguistic version of the collapse of the wave function).

Not that all bosons are elementary particles. Any compound particle with integer charge spin (fermions have fractional charge spin) is a boson too, and is subject to a lot of the same rules. This is why, at temperatures near absolute zero, matter can start to become one incoherent mass just hanging together like a bunch of dopers at an extremely packed rave – a thing called Bose-Einstein condensate.

So you can tell the bosons by their charge and their fungibility. You don’t need to stick bows on them. They’re like the s and s in bosons – both are /z/ (though some people will say the one in the middle as /s/, with no buzz on it). They’re not like the o and o, which look the same but are said differently.

They also occupy symmetric quantum states, which is not quite like oso – though that has rotational symmetry. But in the strange and charmed world of particle physics, for all I know some kind of rotational symmetry will turn out to be important too, and the rotational-symmetrical pair of a boson will be a uosoq. You know, it has such a geeky charm to it that someone’s probably tried to make a theory that allows the use of that word.

But rotated letters don’t match up with rotated sounds. Boson has a springtime, bee-buzzing-in-a-blossom kind of sound; uosoq is rather harsher and more wintry, and looks like it comes from Inuktitut or Klingon. So let’s just stick with our boson buddy here, and not go for the bonus round. This matter is heavy enough as it is.