Friday, July 6, 2012

A Friend Asks About the Higgs Boson

My good friend AO writes:
I am still struggling with how to explain the Higgs boson particle to my friends. Any physicists out there who can help me? The Margaret Thatcher/ Justin Bieber analogy in the paper today did not really help. ☺
As a professional in this area I am obligated to respond. My analog would be to hieroglyphics. We pretty much understand these and can interpret all the stories. But say there was one symbol that appeared a lot and, if we misinterpreted it, the rest of our understanding of the other characters would not be consistent. We aren’t sure what the symbol means, but we have some theories and a model that ties it all together that unfortunately has many free parameters (a math-y way of saying that it fits stuff because we pick numbers that let the model work). Also, the stories all make sense so there appears to be no need to change them, but we would really like to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. So we spend decades obsessively devoted to showing that, though we are still not completely sure what the unknown symbol is, no matter what it is the other stories will remain the unchanged.

The importance of this result was recognized by the team of Lennon-McCartney, who in a seminal work wrote:
I read the news today oh, boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

My personal part of the story is I almost spent my scientific career doing this stuff. I was fortunate enough to have a senior physics seminar with Leon Lederman. I worked a summer at Fermilab back in the 70s. And I sensed that, while intellectually challenging, this field was going nowhere after the glory days of the 50s and 60s. All they were doing at that time was searching for the Higgs Boson. Fast forward to 2012 and they have a statistical resonance in the correct location that will probably, in a couple years, actually turn out to be the Higgs.

And that will be that.

Sub-atomic physics was the 20th century. The 21st century is about macroscopic, complex systems like the economy, epidemics, weather and climate. You could know everything about a single atom but it won’t allow you to calculate how water will flow down a hill or how a new drug will behave on the molecular level.

By the way AO, I also have an extended rant about exoplanet research if you have an afternoon or 5 hour bike ride to kill go ahead, ask.

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