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In My Words: ' I don't understand Higgs'

For Professor Pranab Das, the recent discovery of the "God particle" offers a moment to reflect on what makes science special.

Professor Pranab Das

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The following column appeared recently in the Winston-Salem Journal, the (Durham, N.C.) Herald-Sun, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Fayetteville Observer via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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I Don’t Understand Higgs
By Pranab Das - daspra@elon.edu

I don’t understand Higgs. Not Peter Higgs, who by all reports is a clear-spoken and generally lucid guy. It’s his brainchild, the "God Particle," that keeps me up at night.

Long before our sun was born there were no black holes at the center of galaxies. There was nothing recognizable in space, just a sea of particles undulating in wavy fields of force. Some of those force fields have recently become our friends. If it wasn’t for the microwave oven, for example, I’m not sure civilization would survive. Others remain mysterious. Toddlers and cats appear to understand gravity about as well as anyone… Knock object off table. Observe. Repeat.

The Higgs particle implies the existence of a field that may be even more important, a "Higgs field" responsible for inertia, the resistance we always feel to acceleration (especially on Monday mornings).

The greatest minds in physics, Albert Einstein included, wrestled mightily with the conundrum of inertia in all sorts of contexts. Consider, for example, the problem of getting an ice cream sandwich in outer space. First off, you’re weightless and so is the fridge. To make matters worse, if you forgot to tie it down before going to bed, the fridge might very well be floating around in a menacing sort of way down the hall in the kitchen. Even a weightless fridge could still squish you like a bug if you got between it and the kitchen counter.

Even when things feel weightless, they still have mass and when something with a lot of mass whups you upside the head, you know it. Unfortunately, in space no one can hear you scream.

So how can something have mass without weight? The answer seems to be that there’s a ubiquitous Higgs field and when objects pass through it, they obtain a new property, mass. Mass makes things resist changing speed or direction. Isaac Newton wrote a rule about it. Acceleration, he said, is the ratio of the force applied to mass. Not just a good idea, it’s the law.

Things were much hotter and denser in the early universe. Everything was so energetic that mass and inertia just didn’t matter much. Eventually, though, things began to cool down and the Higgs field took over. Suddenly, inertia set in. Particles started feeling their mass and began to congeal into the solid, sedate matter that we know today. Atoms make molecules that make biological cells and pretty soon it’s the fourth of July and we’re all sitting around eating burgers.

So the Higgs field sets the stage for everything we know. And that’s heady stuff. Unfortunately, finding the Higgs boson is only the first step in figuring out how all this actually works. Presently, there are several competing ideas about how and why things get mass from a Higgs field.

This is a moment to reflect on why science is so special. Scientists test ideas until they break. We celebrate when models pass our tests but celebrate even more when we falsify them. Nothing is more satisfying than overthrowing an established model except taking the next step in validating a useful theory. The Higgs researchers built a whole new scaffold. But bright kids are already climbing up behind them, eager to knock down some overblown idea or make a mark of their own, racing ahead like monkeys climbing the rafters.

Science may seem like a dance of energy and ambition. We reach for the stars and probe the tiniest molecules of life. But what really distinguishes science is its relationship with ignorance. Peter Higgs didn’t know how mass worked. So he worked hard to craft a solid, possible explanation of that deep mystery. As a scientist, his next job was to stand up, explain his position, and make it a target for every brilliant youngster with a calculator and a Ph.D.

What makes science so admirable is the honesty and clarity of the job. Scientists dare to take a stand and have the courage to face being wrong. Peter Higgs and the others who first proposed the Higgs boson have spent decades courageously waiting to be proved wrong. Thanks to thousands of dedicated scientists and the investments of taxpayers around the world, their proposal has been put to the test and validated. Now a whole new flock of questions pops up and, once again, we’re confronted with the sweet and fearful shock of ignorance.

I don’t understand Higgs but that’s the most exciting thing in the world… let’s figure it out!

Pranab Das is a professor of physics at Elon University and executive editor of the International Society for Science and Religion Library Project, based at Cambridge University. He can be reached at daspra@elon.edu.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.
 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
7/31/2012 10:39 AM