Consider a theory of one complex scalar field with the following Lagrangian.
$$
\mathcal{L}=\partial _\mu \phi ^*\partial ^\mu \phi +\mu ^2\phi ^*\phi -\frac{\lambda}{2}(\phi ^*\phi )^2.
$$
The potential is
$$
V(\phi )=-\mu ^2|\phi |^2+\frac{\lambda}{2}|\phi|^4.
$$
The classic stable minimum of this potential is given by $\phi =\frac{\mu}{\sqrt{\lambda}}e^{i\theta}=:v$ for any $\theta \in \mathbb{R}$.

We then define a new field $\psi: =\phi -|v|$, rewrite the Lagrangian in terms of the new field $\psi$, et voilà: out pops the mass term
$$
2|v|^2\lambda \psi ^*\psi .
$$
People usually explain that this shows the existence of a field whose quanta are particles of mass $|v|\sqrt{2\lambda}$. In this sense, the original field has $\phi$ acquired a mass.

I don't buy it. I don't see where this argument has actually used the fact that $v$ is the vacuum expectation value of the field. Yes, it is natural to expand about the classical minima, but why not do something stupid instead and define a new field $\psi :=\phi -7$. Once again, after rewriting the Lagrangian in terms of the new field, you should find that it has indeed acquired has a mass term. Playing this trick over and over, by picking a number different than $7$, you should be able to find a mass term with any mass you like. Obviously, this doesn't make any physical sense.

There is something special about the substitution $\psi :=\phi -|v|$. There must be more to it than a tedious algebraic manipulation, but what is it? Why does nature possess particles of the mass that this substitution yields, as opposed to any other substitution?

On another note, what exactly does this have to do with the global $U(1)$ symmetry present. It seems that the only thing that has played a role so far is that the vacuum expectation value of the field is non-zero, but yet I've always seen this mass generation presented alongside symmetry breaking. What precisely is the relationship between the two?

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2016-02-15 17:18 (UTC), posted by SE-user Jonathan Gleason