Congratulations to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert on their Nobel Prize for their work on the Higgs Boson and the Higgs Field — yay, them!
In a nutshell, the Higgs Field and the Higgs Boson were born to rescue The Ultimate Theory Of How Twelve Particles And Their Interactions Can Explain Pretty Much Everything That Has Ever Happened and Probably Ever Will (Oh, Except For Gravity, That Is); or, as physicists called it, a little more prosaically, The Standard Model.
The Standard Model works really well except that, in its original form, it cannot explain the origin of mass. In other words, it cannot explain why some particles are heavy and others are light. The Higgs Field explains how this happens, and if there is a Higgs Field, there must be a special sort of particle called a Higgs Boson connected with it.
What follows is my attempt to explain some of these concepts in a manner suitable for school students. I call it the Spongebob Squarepants Analogy.
Our Spongebob Squarepants lives, not at the bottom of the sea, but on the steeply sloping side of a mountain (work with me on this!) and for the life of him cannot figure why things like sponges are heavy but un-spongelike things are light.
He comes up with a groundbreaking idea to explain this difference: it’s raining!!!
Its raining, all the time. Everywhere. Invisibly and imperceptibly. Neither Spongebob nor the spongepeople can see the rain, but it’s raining. And it never, ever stops raining.
Spongbob reckons that spongelike things are heavy because they absorb this mysterious, invisible stuff called water. Non-spongelike things do not absorb this water stuff and so they stay light.
The rain represents the Higgs Field.
Now, how can Spongebob tell if he’s right about this water that he cannot see directly?
He predicts that if he bangs two pieces of sponge together with enough energy then they will release enough water to form (sorry, more technical terms here) a puddle.
The puddle will not last a long time because it will start running downhill (remember that our Spongebob lives on the side of a mountain?) The puddle is not stable in Spongebob’s universe. But if Spongebob is very quick and very lucky he might be able to catch a glint of sunlight from the surface of the puddle, and this will prove that he’s right about the water and the rain.
In fact, Spongebob persuades the spongepeople to build what he calls the Large Sponge Collider…but that’s another story.
So, to sum up:
Spongebob Squarepants = Peter Higgs
Rain = Higgs Field
Water = Higgs Mechanism
Puddle = Higgs Boson
My dad would sometimes respond to my more strained and unlikely metaphors in a stern voice, saying: “Son, an analogy is only an analogy!” However, I like to think that he would have enjoyed this one.