Understanding the Higgs-boson

I read this article in the Times today about two competing groups of physicists that searched for and ultimately found the elusive Higgs-boson particle. This article was huge. Like huge in its implications, yeah, but I was talking about length. It went on forever and ever. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, but I was reading the newspaper through my iPhone app when I got up in the morning, and I didn’t intend on sitting by the edge of my bed in my pajamas for that long.

But it seemed so important. And it is. I think. I’m not a physicist. That’s the problem with these articles, or with me, or with science. I’m not sure with what really. But I’ve been following the Higgs-boson for a while now, not that I was really making an effort. Much to the chagrin of the scientific community, somebody infamously dubbed the particle the “God particle,” a couple of years ago, and the sensationalized label kind of took off on the Internet. I’d see stuff about it from time to time, and the headlines would always hook me in.

Which is to say, I’d read, but not really understand anything. And that’s kind of how it was with this long article also. They explain how the hunt for the Higgs-boson started way before they even had the means of looking for it. It’s all math. It’s all logic. Based on their understanding of the universe, they kind of just figured out that something like the Higgs-boson had to exist. If they could prove it, terrific. If they couldn’t, then they had to scrap everything they thought they knew about physics, about the cosmos, and start over.

I read these science articles and I find that I’m only able to grasp the periphery of whatever it is that they’re talking about. For example, in this big piece, which is really like a huge victory lap, a summing up of sorts, they write about the giant particle accelerator that they used to conduct their experiments. They detail the two competing teams who used this accelerator to conduct experiments looking for the Higgs-boson.

And this is what I mean by me understanding only the generalities of what’s being discussed. They talk about the scientists, about their personal lives, about their previous successes and failures. They talk about earlier scientific breakthroughs that led up to this point.

But what about the actual Higgs-boson particle? From everything that I’ve read, I can tell you that it’s something big, for a particle, that bestows mass upon our universe. I think. There’s also something about an invisible force field that permeates the cosmos. So yeah, I don’t understand any of it.

Which is why I had to finish this article. If I can’t understand the science, then I can at least understand the article, the words written down in English. At least I can finish this piece. I had to finish it, to try and understand something. Like, OK, I have an idea of a force field in my head. Yeah, it comes from Star Trek.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s how the upper echelons of science trickles down to some guy who’s late for work because he’s sitting on the edge of his bed stubbornly refusing to get moving until he finishes this behemoth of a front-page newspaper article. Scientists do the work. Scientists understand the work. Then they try to explain it, not with math, not with logic, but with cool sounding analogies like invisible force fields and God particles.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be one of these scientists? To truly grasp whatever it is that they’re talking about? To be at the forefront of human intelligence, it must be the best feeling in the world. I’m insane with jealousy just thinking about it. But I’m insane with jealousy whenever I think about anybody understanding something that I don’t. One time I was out to eat with a big group of people. I wound up sitting next to this guy getting his PhD in economics at Columbia. I tried to strike up a conversation, “What kind of stuff are you studying?”

He seriously said, “OK well this is all very complicated so stop me if I’m droning on and on,” and he talked at me for like ten minutes straight about something regarding the Swiss currency compared to the American currency, and you know what? I’ve already said too much about the conversation, because I didn’t really grasp any of it. But I was determined to sit there and listen and nod at all of the appropriate times, at least making it look like to an outside observer that maybe I’m taking in something, maybe I’m capable of learning something really niche, something important and complex.

There’s so much to know about and to learn and to struggle with and master in this life. If I can’t know what I’m talking about, I want to at least be able to know how to pretend to know what I’m talking about. That’s got to be good for something, right?

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