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.

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


    Does the Higgs boson have mass itself?, or simply confer mass. If yes, how much?

      The Higgs boson does have mass. Exactly how much is currently up for debate, but CERN has released information which suggests the presence of a Higgs like particle with a mass of approximately 125 GeV (or 125 times the mass of a proton).

      To be strictly correct the Higgs confers inertia rather than gravitational charge (two different things that are both referred to as mass and, to great accuracy, appear to equal each other). Currently though we have no convincing theory on how to treat the gravitational force as applied to very small masses.

    What was the point of this article? Seriously? It points to another articles summary and ends up saying the science of mass effect is fantasy. The author seemingly does not understand the complexities of quantum physics because they have missed an extremely obvious discussion point. I would like the author to also answer the above question as it may cause them to actually think about (the lack) of what they have written.

      oic, now get the f off of here :)

    From my possibly inaccurate understanding; mass increases as you approach the speed of light? and thats why its impossible to travel at those speeds? because to be travelling at the speed of light you would achieve a mass that is infinite and therefore requires an infinite amount of energy to move forward.. So I guess that manipulating the higgs field you could theoretically reduce your mass from this infinite state and move faster than this?

      Daniel, sort of correct but slipped up at the end there.
      The speed of light is the limit at which anything in this universe can travel within normal flat spacetime (yes, space is flat, not curved, deal with it).

      The issue with getting to the speed of light is like you said, as you increase speed you increase in mass. So as you get heavier, you require more energy to accelerate. Its an exponential problem, as you cant carry an exponentially large ammount of fuel.

      The fake science being presented here is that with eezo, you remove mass entirely and therfore dont need much if any fuel at all to travel close to, or at the speed of light....because essentially you now ARE light.

      Massless particles in non-rest state are.....? Photons! And how fast do they travel? Speed of light.

      Its nice science fiction, but thats about all.

    If you were to talk about possible real world science analogies to eezo, wouldn't talking about dark energy make more sense?
    The theory is that dark energy is the force counteracting gravity and causing the universe to expand. Which I guess means that applied to things it could effectively lower its weight, allowing it to move faster than light (by bending space time). (This is all purely hypothetical, and tbh I heard it from a documentary so take it with a grain of salt)

      well actually, in the ME universe, eezo manipulates not just matter, but dark energy. dark energy is mentioned many times in the codexs. im surprised the article ignored that

      because space-time is flat there are only two ways to accelerate to near the speed of light, either by actually accelerating to it through energy consumption or by traveling near something massive. Bending space-time isn't science fiction, everything that has mass bends space-time through gravity. Imagine if you were to have a piece of paper and you lay a ruler across the flat paper, now make two lines at some distance apart, then put a toilet paper roll between the paper and the ruler. The points should be closer together than they were before. You have just simulated the effect of gravity on space time.

      The other option for traveling from one end of the galaxy to the other in a relatively short amount of time is through a "Wormhole". Using the same points on the paper fold it together so that the points are the center of the folds then fold it down so that you have two "dips" in the page and then touch the points together and you have a wormhole. Theoretically the same thing happens when two black holes touch at the singularity.

    What excites me most about the confirmation of existence of the Higgs-Boson is looking back about 100 years. The photon holds a similar place in the universe as the higgs (and I say similar) with respect to the electromagnetic field and the photon itself by its discovery, we have been able to manipulate both to our own advantage, sure it has taken a while and you could state that we haven't really advanced "that" far due to research, but even basic things we take for granted, the monitor you are reading this on, the wireless mouse you are using, the high powered laser on the shelf over your left shoulder and the camera you used when you took a picture of that guy passed out in the gutter all, in some way, pay homage to the discovery and manipulation of the photon and electromagnetic field. Now think to the future at what technologies could come about due to the research done on a particle that affects the weight of things.

      Dark energy is not a thing, the term "dark energy" is a place holder for "energy we don't understand yet." The same goes for dark matter.

      Once we know what it is, it is no longer dark energy.

      So the "manipulating dark energy" thing in the ME universe is just a bit ridiculous. "We don't understand it AT ALL but we know how to manipulate it!" ...what?

        Hmm, this reply seems to have come out in completely the wrong place. It was meant to be a response to nebarik on Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 2:57 PM.

    I was totally not interested in the Mass effect half of this writeup, hokey made up sci-fi science belongs where it is. In fantasy and not in a scientific discovery.

    Ask God !!!, he controls matter particles right down to the smallest finite degree.
    Would be interesting to find out how spiritual matter is created ?
    That equasion would be on a much more deeper level. lol

      John: That's an easy one. It is created in the minds of men for their own benefit.

    "Eezo" is possible, but not the way me describes it. It can be proven with a simple equasion. Now, it wont work like within the game, levitation of and individual per-se, as the matter of the object still obeys laws of gravity. However it may assist in keeping the mass of the object from decreasing or giant

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