About the Higgs Particle: the thinking that brings the hope of observation

My husband is one of the experimental physicists participating in the ATLAS experiment at the LHC at CERN.  He left this morning on a trip to Geneva to visit CERN and that may be why I clicked on Kelly Oakes blog at the Scientific American blog network: Why the Higgs Boson Matters.

The stuff that has the attention of particle physicists may seem far removed from what appears to be the real world, but in the words that Oakes borrowed from Carl Sagan I find the kind of thought that keeps me interested.

everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives on the pale blue dot we know as Earth — and none of it would have ever existed without the Higgs boson.

The history of the Higgs boson, the idea that a particular, yet unobserved phenomenon is responsible for all of the mass contained in the universe, is nicely told in a 2007 article in The Guardian.

But when all of the words associated with this quest in physics become attached to people and places, they can come alive.  A very nice effort to do just that is produced at a website called Colliding Particles.  There one can find short films that bring you into some of the day-to-day of researchers and their reflections.  In the first of this series, Gavin Salem says nicely that the fundamental motivation for this now highly technical work is that “We want to know how we got here.”  And, he continues “part of how we got here is knowing why we’re made up of the things we’re made up of, what the structure of the world is.”  The work, he explains, is essentially born of fundamental human curiosity.  In the same segment, Jonathan Butterworth explains that physics is not just observation, although it starts with observation, but is more about fitting ideas, that have predictive value, to observations.  Jon’s student explains that the Higgs particle is a mathematical way of introducing mass into the universe.  This idea fits, and it can be tested.

Ideas are laboriously explored mathematically, in a reality that has been quantified for just this purpose.  Mathematics is the only thing that can structure an idea.  In a another episode called Problems Gavin tells us that one of the difficulties in physics is figuring out which problem to solve.  And his student volunteers that when he tries for days to solve something, and doesn’t, he almost wants to “give up everything.”  Gavin adds that part of solving the kinds of problems he and his students work on is “believing you can solve it and having the persistence to think, and wait, and think, and come back to it, until you find a solution.”  And, he tells us, “knowing that that whole process does actually go somewhere– the belief that you can get there,  is an important part of solving problems.”

Physicists are often asked to do what the physicists in these films are doing, that is to bring words and pictures to the ideas they explore so that they can be comprehended by the rest of us.  The mathematics is left out because, I would argue, the mathematics is the thinking.  It is the mechanism that, like our cognitive mechanisms, actually shapes the observations that are made.  It seems very likely to me that mathematics is some conscious extension of the body’s inherent way of learning from its world.  And the body is built to acquire knowledge that has predictive value.  The cause and effect reasoning studied in babies shows us some of our most basic wiring.

I can imagine that the mathematical description of a fundamental particle is like a neurological description of a tree.


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