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12:03pm, August 10, 2012
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Higgs affects inertia, not gravity
In the articles on the Higgs field in the July 28 issue, the Higgs boson was described as giving rise to the mass and therefore the inertia of particles, and the articles said the Higgs causes particles to “resist motion.” Newton’s first law states that inertia or mass is the property of matter that resists changes in motion, whereas drag is the resistance to motion. Can you explain the apparent conflict between your description and Newton’s first law?
Sherman S. Steadman, via e-mail

I am confused about this statement in “Behind the Higgs” (SN: 7/28/12, p. 26): “With the Higgs field, physicists completed the standard model, which accurately describes the behaviors of all known particles and forces (except gravity).” Elsewhere the articles explain how the Higgs field infuses certain particles with mass. Isn’t mass the basis of gravity — massive entities attracting each other?
Sam Henrie, via e-mail

“Resistance to motion” as a description of inertia is imprecise shorthand for “resistance to change in state of motion,” as mentioned in “Behind the Higgs”: “Such resistance to motion (or more precisely, change in motion) is the very definition of inertia, which in turn is the very definition of mass.” Inertial mass is conferred upon particles by the Higgs; according to Einstein’s general relativity, inertial mass is indistinguishable from gravitational mass. Einstein also showed, however, that gravitation acts not just on mass but on energy. So even though a photon has no mass, its energy distorts spacetime and its path follows distortions in spacetime. So while the Higgs explains why some subatomic particles described by physics’ standard model possess mass, it does not reconcile general relativity with the quantum mechanics that underlies the standard model. —Tom Siegfried

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