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 intuitively comprehensible?
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 Higgsism.
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.