Still incomprehending the sheer enormity of Higgs boson discovery


WELL, that God particle’s learned a thing or two this week.

There it was, the poor old Higgs boson, floating along in its godlike, recondite way, cared about only by physicists, happily mysterious, and with nothing in the world to worry about.

Then, on Wednesday: Bang! It gets discovered, and within hours everything changes.

All of a sudden, radio hosts are enthusing about this evasive little shred of nothingness and its role in life, the universe, and everything, and how it can create mass just by being sort of syrupy. Owlish physicists are hauled out of their hidey-holes and prodded to give a listener-friendly explanation of the Higgs boson in 25 words or less.

It’s the most extensively discussed thing-that-nobody-understands since the Large Hedron Collider, or fracking, or that Prometheus movie, of which I am yet to hear a comprehensible account.

Controversies developed almost immediately.

For one thing – should it continue to be called the ”God Particle”?

It turns out scientists are a bit snippy about it being called that; Nobel laureate Leon Lederman started things off with his 1993 book The God Particle: If the Universe Is The Answer, What Is The Question? and even he is embarrassed at the extent to which the term caught on, especially seeing as he had originally wanted to call it the ”God-damn Particle”, only to be talked down by his publishers.

A poll by The Guardian on Thursday revealed 80 per cent of readers to be in something of a Guardian-reader huff about the term.

”As if there weren’t enough problems already with inter-religious strife,” began one, canvassing the knotty question of which particular deity should be associated with the particle.

”To be perfectly PC and multicultural about it, a huge list of the world’s major and minor deities, male and female, animal, vegetable and/or mineral, past and present, would need to be published, so that individual choices could be posted and the results totted up.”

Elsewhere, the headaches were less to do with possible offence to obscure former broccoli-gods, and more about who would trouser the million-dollar Nobel for the discovery.

Should it go to the ageing Peter Higgs, after whom the thing is named but who politely disclaims sole authorship of the concept?

Or to the handful of other surviving physicists who advanced similar theories at about the same time? Or split haphazardly among the thousands of lesser-known scientists who beavered away anonymously to bring those theories to life?

And another entire category of outrage was generated by CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) when announcing its discovery on Wednesday.

To convey the news of this universe-shaking breakthrough to the world, CERN employed a PowerPoint presentation in the kooky typeface Comic Sans, more customarily employed for passive-aggressive notes from clean-living flatmates about taking the rubbish out, or for imparting a forced sense of fun to otherwise insulting personal hygiene reminders in the toilets of cheap restaurants.

Surely, an announcement of such magnitude warranted the gravitas of Helvetica, at the very least?

Even the chap who invented Comic Sans for Microsoft in 1994, Vincent Connare, who happened to be watching the announcement live, was baffled by the slightly infantilising choice of typeface.

”What’s with the shit slides?” he tweeted, to the intense joy of font nerds everywhere.

So within 48 hours of its formal identification being announced, the God Particle already was a particle haunted by multiple controversies. God Himself may ”move in a mysterious way; His wonders to perform”, but a far more prosaic round of brawling clearly awaits other celestial and enigmatic types incautious enough to fall to Earth.

Personally, I would like science now to turn its attention to some of the other outstanding particles that cry out for discovery.

Fine to discover a particle that creates mass … why not a particle that makes it disappear? If there aren’t thousands of scientists hunched over this one at the Jenny Craig Nuclear Physics Consilium, dreaming of their own imminent global press release punched out in proudly extra-calorific Wide Latin Bold, I’d be very surprised.

How about an IKEA particle that – when smashed into a flat-pack – immediately draws all the pieces together to form an Aspelund wardrobe? Or the Holy Grail: A hangover cure particle?

The composer Paul Stanhope, presently observing Dry July, nevertheless nominated the hangover particle as an especially pressing priority when I asked Twitter for suggestions on Thursday.

”We are talking about atoms getting smashed, after all,” he reasoned. And fair enough.

Easily the nicest thing about the last few days, however, has been the genuine sense of global exhilaration at the ability of very clever people to do very clever things, even if most of us dullards don’t get exactly what they are.

So: Here’s cheers, physics geniuses. Welcome to ordinary life, little boson. Let’s drink to your continuing good health. And then you can get cracking on that hangover particle.

Written By: Annabel Crabb
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  1. Seems like the article has been  snipped off. Unless we’re supposed to consider this an abstract and read the actual thing at canberratimes?

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