Physics for Poets

Ask not what the Higgs boson can do for you. Ask what it can do for me

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Ever since physicists announced their discovery of the Higgs boson particle in Switzerland on July 4, I keep being told that its existence fundamentally alters our knowledge of the universe. I have no idea who this "our" refers to. My knowledge of the universe is that if I write stupid jokes, the universe gives me a really nice house and great meals. I do not believe mankind will ever develop a formula to explain this.

Still, I figured if I could talk to one of the greatest physicists in the world and have him explain the Higgs boson to me, I could then explain it to you, and you could explain it to your friends, who, by the laws of the telephone-game hypothesis, would believe that physicians had found a way to make bigger bosoms.

Toward that end, I called Brian Greene, a physics professor at Columbia University who has theorized that topology in string theory can change at the conifold point and, more important, played himself in an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Greene, in a matter of minutes, likened the Higgs boson to a baseball, a hockey puck, molasses, a Mack truck and the television show CSI. None of these comparisons helped, because I don't know how any of those things work either. Then Greene told me that when physicists develop equations to describe electrons, neutrinos, quarks and other stuff that makes up stuff, "we most naturally apply zero mass, but experiment reveals they have mass." Having taken high school math, I realized that physicists had been plugging in zero for everything's mass because it's a really easy number to multiply by. "I wish that were the case. It's actually a huge amount of work," Greene said. I'm pretty sure I said the same thing to Mr. Natale.

What the Higgs field proves is that this stuff all really does start out with zero mass. The entire universe, most of which looks like nothingness, is actually filled with a Higgs field, and when stuff accelerates through this molasses/rough ice/poorly paved road/Fenway Park air/muddled CBS plot, it gets slowed down so it seems as if it has mass. If you flick off a piece of this Higgs field, you can actually get a boson--which is nerd for "tiny bit." And while this physical particle exists only for a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a second, you can measure all the tiny parts it decomposes into, thereby proving the existence of the Higgs field--which creates all the physical stuff in the entire universe. The point is, the entire universe is jam-packed with this Higgs stuff, and physicists were too dumb to notice it because they were so focused on whether or not Pluto was a planet.

This amazing discovery led me to a lot of fascinating questions, the largest of which was: What can the Higgs field do for me? Yes, having given me mass is great, though I think the Higgs field has lately gone a little too far with that, but what could it do for me right now? Would the Higgs boson allow me to fuel some kind of reasonably priced Toyota that would make me feel morally superior to SUV drivers? More important, could the Higgs field be used to hook a Barbie doll to a computer and create a circa-1985 Kelly LeBrock?

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