Scientists Discover The Mass Effect! Or Is It Just The Higgs Boson?

There is, to be sure, a vast gulf between science and science fiction. The former relies on provable observations about the physical world that is. It quantifies, measures, and predicts the ways that the systems that govern our universe behave. The latter is anything that anybody feels like making up, whether or not it’s truly compatible with reality.

The two don’t necessarily relate very often. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to try.

This week, physicists conformed that, after many years and much expense, they could confirm the existence of the particle that gives matter its mass. In terms of making the standard model of physics continue to make sense, the news is huge. But how does it fit with fictional models of physics? In short: how does finding mass fit in with Mass Effect?

The Real Science

The Higgs boson is a type of particle that has, until now, been theoretical. Particle physics looks at the tiniest building blocks of all things. Most of us learn about atoms being made of protons, neutrons, and electrons in high school but the actual reality is far more complicated. Particles like quarks and bosons fill in the picture.

In short, the boson is called after Peter Higgs, a British physicist who in the 1960s outlined the behaviour and properties of the boson that scientists could theoretically expect one day to find. As it turns out, he was right. A major group of European scientists announced on Wednesday that they pretty much found it exactly as they’d expected. A number of excellent summaries of what the Higgs boson is and why everyone was looking for it have cropped up around the internet. There’s a video explanation from our sibling site Gizmodo and a write-up from io9.

But perhaps the most digestible key summary, for our purposes, comes from this layman-friendly writeup in The Atlantic:

*The Higgs field is a quantum field that the Standard Model of physics predicts pervades the universe and creates drag on particles.

*The Higgs boson is a sub-atomic particle that acts as the intermediary between the Higgs field and other particles. All fields are mediated by bosons, some of which pop into and out of existence depending on the state of the field, sort of like how rain drops emerge out of a cloud when it reaches a certain point. The electromagnetic field that pervades the universe, for example, is mediated by photons. Finding the Higgs boson would confirm that the Higgs field exists, and that field has long been postulated as a way of explaining an array of other physical phenomena.

* This interaction between the field, the boson and other particles is the Higgs mechanism. The precise nature of the mechanism is still being worked out, but it is through its complex interplay of fields and bosons (Higgs and non-Higgs) that particles acquire mass.

The last statement is the key: that through the “complex interplay of fields and bosons,” particles acquire mass. Which leads us to…

The Fake Science

The actual “mass effect” phenomenon is critical to the universe Mass Effect posits. It’s how all of the super-futuristic technology — biotics, shields, intragalactic travel — manages to work.

The idea behind the mass effect is that through application of Element Zero (eezo), devices (like mass relays) can create mass effect fields and alter the properties and behaviour of mass. According to the games’ in-universe Codex, “Element zero can increase or decrease the mass of volume of space-time when subjected to an electrical current. With a positive current, mass is increased. With a negative current, mass is decreased. The stronger the current, the greater the magnitude of the dark energy mass effect.”

In this case, a mass relay would be using its glowing blue eezo core to create a profound positive or negative charge on an object passing through it (like, say, the Normandy). On one end it would drastically reduce the mass of an item and send it flinging far away; on the other end, its mass would increase and the ship would, basically, reconstitute. Similarly, smaller, portable mass effect fields work to allow engineers (salarian, no doubt) to mess with local gravity for manufacturing and transportation needs. Need to keep space junk away from your planet? Go create a high-gravity mass effect field to draw it into instead.

The Result

Where we lose Mass Effect entirely is with eezo. Element Zero is, effectively, space magic. Positive and negative currents run through various materials can create rather dramatic fields and effects, but without eezo, long-distance travel isn’t one of them.

But the idea that fields exist and can affect mass is, as discussion of the Higgs system indicates, not entirely outrageous. But it happens on an extraordinarily small level, deep down in the foundational building blocks of matter. And it happens in a fluid, nonstop sort of way, just to make the universe function.

We’re not going to be zipping around the galaxy through ancient tuning forks anytime soon. Without a healthy dose of space magic to make the rules of spacetime and matter irrelevant, we still have to navigate it the old-fashioned, very slow way.

But hey, you never know. Maybe the prothean ruins on Mars will prove me wrong.

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