Editorial: Getting heads around Higgs

Last updated 05:00 09/07/2012

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OPINION: There's bound to be an upcoming episode of TV's The Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon Cooper is having conniptions about last week's announcement of the all-but-certain discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

Those among us who are not steeped in the challenges of quantum physics – and you know who you are – may still be trying to come to terms with why exactly the discovery of a very, very small thing is being acclaimed as a very, very big thing.

The little subatomic particles are the building blocks of atoms.

They are the smallest particles yet found; the ones that persuade the larger subatomic particles, which are themselves the building blocks of atoms, to hang out together in useful ways.

Thanks to the reasoned mind of Professor Peter Higgs, we had a pretty good idea since 1964 that these particles were out there.

But they took some finding.

And now, here they are.

The scientists involved in the new announcement are being a tad more circumspect in the wording. They are not saying emphatically that they have found them; just that they have found particles fitting the description.

Were science more political than it is, this might seem like a premature fuss over an encouraging progress report. However, other scientists are saying that this is just a superabundance of caution and that at all intents and purposes we can really rest assured and that behind all the talk about "preliminary" findings, it's mission accomplished.

The odds that the discovered particle isn't what they were after are about 0.00057 per cent. Which is even less than the odds for a first division Lotto win.

So this would, indeed, appear to be the little bugger the world's scientists have been looking for – and discovered with a pleasing degree of international co-operation.

The people who handle scientific metaphors have even managed to find a way to help the Entertainment Tonight generation get their heads around how the Higgs boson works.

Picture the subatomic particles we had already found as celebrities. The Higgs bosons are the autograph-seekers who mob them, slowing them down.

Now that we can study these new particles, we can learn heaps. It should shed light on other universal mysteries.

Older non-physicists will be struck with the assessments that this is a discovery right up there with our own Ernest Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus.

It it childish of us to note that there is some high-end vandalism in this?

Just as Rutherford used his famous atom-smasher, the two teams that have uncovered the Higgs boson did so by using the splendid Large Haldron Collider, which also, essentially, bashes stuff to bits.

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Perhaps it's little wonder babies almost immediately want to bang things together.

Maybe it's really been that simple all along. Learn how to break things intelligently enough, and you'll unlock the wonders of the universe.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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