The astrophysicist and philosopher Sir Arthur Eddington was once congratulated on being one of just three people who truly understood Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Hearing this Eddington fell silent and seemed lost in thought. When asked what had given him pause, he is said to have replied: “I am trying to think who the third person would be.” Much the same could be said of the breathlessly awaited proofs of the Higgs boson that may soon emerge from data collected at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva. Nearly everyone knows that its discovery will be hugely significant for the future of science, but very few of us know why.
Eddington went on to publish some of the most lucid explanations of relativity for a popular audience, as did the philosopher Bertrand Russell. In our own generation a host of outstanding popular science writing has made many of the highlights of twentieth century science accessible to the layman. Nowadays someone with minimal mathematical skills can quickly acquaint themselves with the weirdness of the quantum world through a whole series of books on Heisenberg, Dirac, Schrödinger and Feynman. As a result, many of us have become accustomed to invoking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – that accurate information about one quality makes our knowledge of another quality less exact – while knowing little of the underlying science.
Popular culture also abounds with references to Schrödinger’s cat, but only a tiny handful of them flirt with the conceptual difficulties of collapsed wave functions and reality-creating observers. Some highbrow writers have had more success with this challenge, particularly the British playwrights Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, who have delved quite brilliantly into the philosophical and political consequences of such recondite ideas as complementarity (the Copenhagen interpretation) and entanglement. There are also, for the curious amateur, hands-on explanations by acknowledged experts like Stephen Hawking, Murray Gell-Mann and Roger Penrose.
Even so, there is only so much that outsiders can grasp in the current discussions of the Higgs boson. The Standard Model – which will be confirmed if and when Higgs bosons are located in the data produced by the recent experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – is a mindbending collection of speculations about the quantum world, a bestiary of quarks, muons and leptons, sorted by deceptively simple tags like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour.’ Decades of intense cerebration have posited these wonderful constructs and their existence has now been confirmed by experiments – with one crucial exception: the Higgs boson. Its discovery will consolidate the Standard Model and validate speculation that elementary particles acquire ‘non-vanishing mass’ through their interaction with the omnipresent Higgs Field (named for Peter Higgs, one of several scientists who proposed, half a century ago, that infinitesimal fluctuations at the subatomic level create ‘broken symmetry’ in a system, and permit the creation of mass).
The layman could easily be forgiven for wondering what difference any of this makes to daily life, and whether it is worth the six billion dollars spent on the LHC and its scientists. Similar doubts have greeted many earlier scientific breakthroughs – largely because their implications were largely unforeseeable at the time. Newton’s theories set the stage for new systems of navigation, measuring time and modelling the universe; later on Einstein’s yielded the science of the nuclear age. The discovery of the Higgs boson particle may well be on par with these watershed moments, but we may only know that for sure a generation from now when new puzzles from the LHC data have been solved.
In March 1781, Frederick William Herschel, a German born music teacher and amateur astronomer discovered the planet Uranus. Herschel was an eccentric who had taught himself to ‘read’ the night sky like a piece of music, and hand built telescopes better than those used by the Royal Astronomer. He produced wonderful conjectures about space – among them the idea that there were forests and cities on the moon. After his discovery of Uranus similar questions were asked – what difference does it make, was it worth all the labour and expense of building giant telescopes and tracking every inch of the sky so carefully? As it happened, Herschel’s new planet revolutionised our understanding of ‘deep space’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘deep time’ – revealing that the age of the universe had to be measured in billions of years rather than millions. It forced us to see not just the world but the entire universe from a new perspective – no small achievement for a part-time astronomer. The Higgs boson has been hyperbolically dubbed ‘the God-particle.’ Scientists banlk at such a lavish claim, but it is likely to alter the ways we understand matter, space and, ultimately, reality. Such knowledge would be cheap at twice the price.