I love the fact that yesterday, the day he won the Nobel Prize in physics, Peter Higgs couldn’t be found. He was off “somewhere in Scotland” with no cell phone, no email, no address. That, I think, is winning in style.
Higgs is the father, as it were, of the Higgs boson, aka “the God particle.” As you might suspect, it wasn’t him who gave it so grandiose and eye-catching a nickname. That was a colleague in search of a selling book title, who later said that what he really wanted to call it was “the goddamn particle.”
Not being a physicist, I’ve had trouble figuring out exactly what this boson is — in fact, what any boson is. (Not that physicists have had it any easier: it took ten thousand of them 53 years to follow up on Higgs’ first theoretical paper until they proved the boson’s existence just last year — after sifting 2,000 trillion subatomic fireballs through CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Yes, two thousand trillion — that’s why it’s large.)
But then lo and behold, this morning: epiphany! Denis Overbye at the NYT described the Higgs boson in terms I can almost grasp, along with a short video he begins this way: “The Higgs boson is not for the faint of heart. It’s tough stuff, even for physicists.”
Gulp. But gird up your loins, because this is worth it. It brims with enticing ideas to play with — a grand portal to the intersection of physics and metaphysics.
The Higgs was the last missing ingredient of the Standard Model, a suite of equations that has ruled particle physics for the last half-century, explaining everything from the smell of a rose to the ping when your computer boots up.
According to this model, the universe brims with energy that acts like a cosmic molasses, imbuing the particles that move through it with mass, the way a bill moving through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming more and more ponderous and controversial.
Cosmic molasses. Am into that.
Without the Higgs field, many elementary particles, like electrons, would be massless and would zip around at the speed of light. There would be no atoms and no us.
For scientists, the discovery of the Higgs (as physicists call it) affirmed the view of a cosmos ruled by laws of almost diamond-like elegance and simplicity, but in which everything interesting — like us — is a result of lapses or flaws in that elegance.
You can see why I love this. It’s an intensely esthetic idea — an intensely existential, philosophical and psychological one too — in which flaws and imperfections are exactly what makes life interesting. There’s a touch of kabbala in it (real kabbala, not Madonna red-string theory). A good dose of Spinoza, perhaps. And a marvelous challenge to the naive and pernicious idea of human perfectibility.
At the heart of the physicists’ quest, Overby continues, was
an ancient idea, the concept of symmetry, and how it was present in the foundations of physics but hidden in the world as we experience it. In art and nature, something is symmetrical if it looks the same when you move it one way or another, like a snowflake rotated 60 degrees; in science and math, a symmetry is something that does not change when you transform the system, like the length of an arrow when you turn it around or shoot it.
All fundamental forces were the result of nature’s trying to maintain symmetries, physicists realized — for example, the conservation of electric charge in the case of electromagnetism, or the conservation of momentum and energy in the case of Einstein’s gravity. But…
By a process called symmetry breaking, a situation that started out balanced can wind up unbalanced. Imagine, for example, a pencil standing on its tip; it will eventually fall over and point only one way out of many possibilities. The mass of the boson can be thought of as the energy released when the pencil falls.
“The energy released when a pencil falls.” There’s poetry here, and I’ve only sampled it, so read the whole article (it’s misleadingly headlined — hello, NYT editors? — so scroll down to paragraph 10 and read on from there), and let the imagination soar…