Higgs Boson and Crushing on Science

Yesterday, while you were prepping for the grilled beasts, or the beer pong, or the cowering, terrified pets, or the too-late outing with children to see them grin at the burning skyflowers, the science world exploded.

A possible Higgs boson left some remnants that were consistent in two separate studies at a supercollider in Geneva. Verifying the standard model of particle physics. Proving true the dominant explanation of the tiniest particles of our universe.

All the Higgs hubbub got me thinking about the role of science in our society. And my thoughts got grand, as thoughts tend to get when grappling with theories about the nature of the universe.

As I understand (which is barely, which will be part of my point if you stick it out with me), the Higgs field is a theoretical explanation for why the known subatomic particles (quarks and muons etc.) behave in strange patterns. In particular, the Higgs field is an explanation for why different particles have different “mass.” This works if you define “mass” according to what the Higgs field is supposed to be, which was thought up in the first place to explain “mass.”

So, the Higgs field can explain why particles have different masses if you define “mass” as an interaction with the Higgs field.

(This may seem circular, but it’s not, because it’s science and our minds are too puny to understand.)

Lawrence Krauss at Slate explains it thusly:

The idea of the Higgs particle was proposed nearly 50 years ago. (Incidentally, it has never been called the “God particle” by the physics community. That moniker has been picked up by the media, and I hope it goes away.) It was discussed almost as a curiosity, to get around some inconsistencies between predictions and theory at the time in particle physics, that if an otherwise invisible background field exists permeating empty space throughout the universe, then elementary particles can interact with this field. Even if they initially have no mass, they will encounter resistance to their motion through their interactions with this field, and they will slow down. They will then act like they have mass.

The Higgs field offers lots of explanations and generally makes us feel good that there may be a presence underlying all matter in the universe that makes the quarks and such behave in the way that they do.

A Higgs boson is proof that the Higgs field exists.

This reminds me of what happened to me when I took my bookish self into the college registrar and declared a double major in English and theoretical mathematics.

All math seemed like metaphor to me. I could understand it only in metaphor. Which made me different from the real mathematicians, who understood math as MATH.

For example, in math, there are entities that exist solely to hold the system up: to solve problems inherent in the system, or to fill up gaps that the system needs filling.

A tentative example of this (because I don’t remember the 90s as well as I’d like) is the imaginary number. It was invented to solve some problems in number theory. And once it was invented, it turned out to have some concrete applications.

To my bookish mind, this was a fantastic projection of the human imagination on par with religion itself. A fiction embedded into a system premised on empirical truth.

And that’s mostly what I saw. (And that’s mostly why it was fun, far more fun that the applied math that solved problems you may have in your backyard, or your aerospace engineering facility.)

But to actual mathematicians (I’m generalizing, of course), these abstract, calculated entities are quite real. This type of placeholder entity, whose existence was dreamed up because it would really help out the rest of the theory, really exists. Because it has tangible effects: it solves problems, it holds up in calculations, it explains what we see around us.

And the Higgs boson is real in that way. And also, there’s now empirical proof of it.

Hallelujah!

Because our belief in the empirical is as powerful as our belief in god. And the tension between these two beliefs is one broad explanation for much of society’s ills. (I did say this would get overly grand.)

Both beliefs are fueled by a fantasy of purity, of authenticity, of direct contact with something that will never, ever change, no matter how us petty, ridiculous people behave.

People get excited about particle physics because of this tension between our need for an objective, empirical reality and a transcendent, unknowable one. Contemporary physics offers both.

You think that you have mass? That you spend hours every day reducing your mass? Measuring it, and heaving it around rooms and streets, and sitting on chairs, expecting them to support it? Well, if you look closely enough, it turns out that “mass” is just an interaction with a “field.” It’s a relationship. And the particles that make up the atoms that make the cells that make you have a “mass” are an interaction that we cannot even measure until after it is destroyed.

It’s mystifying, and it makes us feel like children. And not in the carefree, whimsical, Popsicles-and-kittens way (I mean, not in our fantasy of childhood way). In the impotent, bigger-people-run-everything-about-my-life-and-I-can’t-do-what-I-want-about-anything-that-matters way.

Thanks, Higgs boson, for making me feel like a chump!

The problem with our passion for objective, empirical reality is that we can best (in this case, only) understand it through metaphor.

And, as the history and philosophy of science people kept yelling at me during graduate school: SCIENCE IS NOT METAPHOR.

Science is the thing itself. Metaphor is a level of abstraction away from the thing itself.

But for literary people, metaphor is also the thing itself. Language is the foundation of our reality, at least as much as the Higgs field (and its maybe-soon-to-be-discovered friends). And the more radical would argue that language is more foundational, because without language and metaphor, we’d never have thought of the Higgs field in the first place, before building a budget-breaking facility to crash billions of particles every day to find evidence of it.

So you can see why they called this the “Science Wars.”

So what is it, people? What is the fundamental component of our universe? Is it god? Is it the Higgs field and the future unknowable discoveries spurring from discovery of Higgs (and electrons, and protons, and quarks, and neutrinos, etc. et.c in perpetuity before and after)? Is it language and metaphor?

I choose all of the above. Heh.

PS. Here are some other resources on the Higgs boson phenomenon.

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