Rushville Republican

March 20, 2013

Stuart: A cathartical particle article

Don Stuart
Rushville Republican

RUSHVILLE — In one of the most exciting advances in the realm of science since Penny and Leonard starting dating again on “The Big Bang Theory,” scientists have said they are confident they have found a Higgs boson.

Make that “finally have tentatively confirmed the existence” of a Higgs boson. It took a half a century, and billions and billions of dollars to conduct the search that led to this thrilling tentative confirmation. And even today there are two teams of researchers, 3,000 scientists on each, doing further calculations, measurements and data analysis to resolve conflicting viewpoints on which one them does the best impression of Carl Sagan saying “billions and billions.” (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Google “Carl Sagan” and “billions and billions” and before long, you’ll be working on your imitation of him!)

So what is a Higgs boson? It is a particle, a sub-atomic speck. It is a key to the theory of how everything works, why any substance or thing has mass, and to how the Big Bang led to the creation of the universe, thus connecting it to every monumental mystery ever pondered by mankind, such as the genius of Mozart, the elegance of a leaping dolphin, and why is my 11-year old an Atlanta Falcons fan.

Maybe somewhere along the line you’ve heard the Higgs boson particle referred to by its nickname “the God particle.” I heard a radio interview the other day with a guy named Dick Teresi who co-wrote a book about the Higgs boson called “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” This book originated the “God particle” nickname.

Amusingly, Teresi said when he proposed that nickname to physicist Leon Lederman, his co-author, Lederman said “No way.” But Teresi, who had already written seven books, said look, no publisher has EVER used one of my proposed titles, so there’s no harm in submitting it. (Interestingly, there must be a law of physics behind this editorial act, because none of my column headlines EVER get used by the Republican. Except those that you like and think are funny; those are totally mine.)

Anyway, the publishers liked “God particle,” much to Teresi’s and Lederman’s surprise. However, it turned out all right in the end; ultimately, the nickname only offended two groups, those who believe in God and those who don’t. And thus the book sold like a stack of hotcakes at IHOP. That is, it sold three copies, which is the size of a stack of hotcakes at IHOP.

Apparently in the book, which I haven’t read, since I already fully understand the quantum physics behind the Higgs boson, Lederman wrote that he really wanted to nickname the Higgs boson the. . .uhhh, how should I put this. . .the “God-[structure that beavers build]” particle. But Teresi says that was just a joke; it was included in the book because Lederman had yearned all his life to be a stand-up comedian. Alas, we never got the chance to argue if Lederman’s “Top Ten” lists were funnier than Letterman’s; Leon instead lived the humdrum life of a theoretical physicist with little to show for it beyond the meager recognition of a Nobel Prize.

Speaking of which, there might be a really big brouhaha around who should win a Nobel Prize for finally locating a Higgs boson. It could be Higgs. As in Peter Higgs, a British theoretical physicist who first proposed it’s existence, way back in 1964, mainly to distract the other physicists in his lab, who had been spending long hours, week in and week out, exchanging the first letters of each other’s names; he’d become “Heter Piggs,” which led to him being called “Piggs” on a daily basis to a hysterical chorus of physicist giggles, and he was bloody well tired of it.

Controversially, there’s some serious dissent that the particle should EVER have been called Higgs boson in the first place. For example, Dick Teresi says at least six other physicists helped “discover” it back in 1964. But maybe Higgs, who’s still among us, at age 83, would be willing to see the name changed? If so, since it took so long, and the confirmation is still only tentative, here’s an idea I think makes sense, the Where’s Waldo particle.