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5.6: What is Mass?

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12

Lesson Objectives

  • Describe the current theory of mass being tested at the LHC.
  • Describe why knowing the mechanism for mass is important.
  • Describe the LHC’s contribution to this search.


Inertia is one aspect of mass. The larger the mass of a resting object, the harder it is to move that object. But what causes mass? Is gravity related to particles the same way an atom’s charge depends on the protons and electrons it holds?

When you incorporate the standard model into the familiar formula for universal gravitational attraction you get a variable that keeps appearing in the mathematics.

This is a small part of a formula that is handwritten on about \begin{align*}35\end{align*} lines of notebook paper. And in this formula the “\begin{align*}H\end{align*}” variable keeps appearing. The “\begin{align*}H\end{align*}” variable represents a particle called the Higgs. Because the Higgs particle is responsible for a force, it is a boson. Somehow stuff attracts Higgs particles. The more Higgs particles you attract, the more your motion is retarded. This is termed inertia and it can indicate the mass of an object. If the Higgs particle exists then it will lend more support for the standard model of subatomic particles. If the something different from the particle is found, then the fun really begins as new theories are developed and old ones are modified (Brian Cox: An Inside Tour of the World’s Supercollider, 2008).

The ATLAS experiment at the LHC is designed to search for this particle (Cox, 2008). Previous experiments have hinted toward this particle’s existence but were inconclusive. It has been determined that a more energetic collision is needed in a chamber with more sensitive detectors in an effort to find more conclusive evidence (CERN, “History,” 1999).

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