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My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is
on metaphors for the Higgs Boson.
In 1993 a British science minister, William Waldegrave, was
sitting on a train reading the speech that his staff had prepared
for him for a physics conference. Finding the draft "unspeakably
dull," he decided instead to challenge the assembled scientists to
answer, on a single sheet of paper, the question: "What is the
Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" He pledged to the
winner a bottle of vintage Champagne.
Even before its existence was at last tentatively suggested by an
experiment this week, many people had heard of the Higgs boson, the
mysterious manifestation of the field that causes matter to have
mass, according to a theory minted in 1964. Yet almost nobody,
myself included, knows what a Higgs boson is, or at least can give
a sensible description of it. This is a serious handicap if
Higgsism, as I hereby christen it, is to have an impact on human
culture, let alone on technology.
Most scientific discoveries can be boiled down to a sound bite,
however imperfectly. Black holes are so dense that they do not even
let light out. Genes are pieces of heredity. Vaccination is a
medical procedure that works by stimulating the body's immune
system. And so on.
In particle physics, sound-bite explanations are much harder:
wave-particle duality, quantum mechanics, general relativity and
string theory make good mathematical sense, or so I am told, but
they generally defy translation into English. So do philosophical
conundrums like free will-a subject whose paradoxes seem all but
impossible to capture in language. Can the Higgs boson be made
Out of hundreds of entries responding to Mr. Waldegrave's
challenge, the judges chose five winners (costing the minister five
bottles of fine Champage, from his own pocket). The striking thing
about the essays is how much they resorted to analogy to explain
The most memorable metaphor was offered by David Miller of
University College, London. Since Mr. Waldegrave had been a
colleague of Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Miller chose to portray the
Higgs field thus: "Imagine a cocktail party of political-party
workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking
to their nearest neighbors. The ex-prime minister enters and
crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighborhood are
strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves, she
attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left
return to their even spacing."
The party-goers are the Higgs field, which gives mass to particles
like electrons (Lady Thatcher) by viscously impeding their
progress. "Once moving, she is harder to stop, and once stopped,
she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process
has to be restarted." The Higgs boson itself he compared to a rumor
spreading through the party, causing a wave of local clustering in
the Higgs field.
As for the second part of Mr. Waldegrave's question-"why do we
want to find it?"-the essays gave few answers beyond the pursuit of
knowledge as an end in itself. The Higgs boson feels untouchably
esoteric, a fragment of pure knowledge that may never be applied in
the practical world. But the same could have been said of the
theory of general relativity, and yet satellite navigation, on
which we all now depend, would be riddled with inaccuracies without
corrections derived from it.
Even without eventual practical use, it would be good if the Higgs
boson had a cultural impact, by moving into the language as a
metaphor, just as "light year," "Darwinian," "subconscious" and "in
the DNA" have done.
Perhaps the way that a bureaucracy impedes, delays and weighs down
a simple course of action could henceforth be described as
Higgsian. When a committee member proposes a time-wasting
complication, one could cry out, "Don't be such a Higgs boson!"
Just a suggestion.