Why you should care about the mass of the top quark

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters on July 17, 2014, a team of American researchers reported the most precisely measured value yet of the mass of the top quark, the heaviest fundamental particle. Its mass is so high that can exist only in very high energy environments – such as inside powerful particle colliders or in the very-early universe – and not anywhere else.

For this, the American team’s efforts to measure its mass come across as needlessly painstaking. However, there’s an important reason to get as close to the exact value as possible.

That reason is 2012’s possibly most famous discovery. It was drinks-all-round for the particle physics community when the Higgs boson was discovered by the ATLAS and CMS experiments on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). While the elation lasted awhile, there were already serious questions being asked about some of the boson’s properties. For one, it was much lighter than is anticipated by some promising areas of theoretical particle physics. Proponents of an idea called naturalness pegged it to be 19 orders of magnitude higher!

Because the Higgs boson is the particulate residue of an omnipresent energy field called the Higgs field, the boson’s mass has implications for how the universe should be. Being much lighter, physicists couldn’t explain why the boson didn’t predicate a universe the size of a football – while their calculations did.

In the second week of September 2014, Stephen Hawking said the Higgs boson will cause the end of the universe as we know it. Because it was Hawking who said and because his statement contained the clause “end of the universe”, the media hype was ridiculous yet to be expected. What he actually meant was that the ‘unnatural’ Higgs mass had placed the universe in a difficult position.

The universe would ideally love to be in its lowest energy state, like you do when you’ve just collapsed into a beanbag with beer, popcorn and Netflix. However, the mass of the Higgs has trapped it on a chair instead. While the universe would still like to be in the lower-energy beanbag, it’s reluctant to get up from the higher-energy yet still comfortable chair.

Someday, according to Hawking, the universe might increase in energy (get out of the chair) and then collapsed into its lowest energy state (the beanbag). And that day is trillions of years away.

What does the mass of the top quark have to do with all this? Quite a bit, it turns out. Fundamental particles like the top quark possess their mass in the form of potential energy. They acquire this energy when they move through the Higgs field, which is spread throughout the universe. Some particles acquire more energy than others. How much energy is acquired depends on two parameters: the strength of the Higgs field (which is constant), and the particle’s Higgs charge.

The Higgs charge determines how strongly a particle engages with the Higgs field. It’s the highest for the top quark, which is why it’s also the heaviest fundamental particle. More relevant for our discussion, this unique connection between the top quark and the Higgs boson is also what makes the top quark an important focus of studies.

Getting the mass of the top quark just right is important to better determining its Higgs charge, ergo the extent of its coupling with the Higgs boson, ergo better determining the properties of the Higgs boson. Small deviations in the value of the top quark’s mass could spell drastic changes in when or how our universe will switch from the chair to the beanbag.

If it does, all our natural laws would change. Life would become impossible.

The American team that made the measurements of the top quark used values obtained from the D0 experiment on the Tevatron particle collider, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The Tevatron was shut in 2011, so their measurements are the collider’s last words on top quark mass: 174.98 ± 0.76 GeV/c2 (the Higgs boson weighs around 126 GeV/c2; a gold atom, considered pretty heavy, weighs around 210 GeV/c2). This is a precision of better than 0.5%, the finest yet. This value is likely to be updated once the LHC restarts early next year.

Featured image: Screenshot from Inception