Captivated by a cosmic discovery

My friend Robbie would understand it. He’s brilliant. A research geodesist and a PhD who revels in quantum physics. I like talking to him, even though I’m usually outside my depth.

My friend Irma likely gets it, too. She’s a chemist, smart enough to teach engineers university-level chemistry. Plus she loves the table of elements, even cracks jokes about it.  I usually don’t get them.

My brother-in-law Larry is likely all over the news of it. He’s just plain smart, a minister who dabbles in computer programming when he’s not thinking about theology. He reads books that are way beyond my comprehension.

I expect all three of these folks are following this week’s breaking scientific news: the announcement that scientist are pretty sure they’ve caught sight of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that physicists have been chasing for decades.

It’s a pretty big deal, captivating ordinary folks (like me) all over the world. I’m not nearly as smart as Robbie, Irma or Larry and I’ve never been particularly good at math (which apparently is crucial if you are really going to understand the Higgs), but I’ve still been reading scores of news articles about the discovery.

I realize I’m writing about it as if I understand it, calling it ‘the Higgs’ as if I’m part of the in crowd. I’m not, of course. But I am intrigued, although I’m not exactly sure why.

My interest could stem from the fact that scientists have been working on proving their theory that this very tiny particle exists for a very long time. I admire their perseverance, even if I’m a little skeptical of the cost of the work – about $10 billion.

That much money could feed a lot of starving children.  But let’s be realistic, the way our world is operating these days, we probably would have spent it on war.

Instead, the money paid the salaries of hundreds of scientists around the world, funded a massive machine for smashing atoms, and gave birth to the World Wide Web (which the scientists created so they could share information, much to the benefit of us all).

Other spin offs from Higgs research include advancing our ability to capture solar energy, improving medical imaging and developing a proton therapy used to fight cancer.

It’s money well spent, even beyond the fact that we (well, scientists and my smart friends) now purport to understand something elemental about the universe:  how it began.

Not being a physicist, chemist, mathematician or particularly intelligent when it comes to those disciplines, I am not going to attempt to explain what the Higgs boson is all about. Suffice it to say its about matter and mass, tiny particles, the speed of light, sticky fields in the universe and collisions. It’s about how scientists think the world, as we know it, came to be.

It’s about big questions, and the beginning of answers, which then lead to even more questions.  This is another reason I’m curious about Higgs.

Of course, the other aspect of this story that caught my attention is the nickname given to the Higgs boson.  It’s widely known as the God particle, but not because any of the scientists involved in its discovery are particularly religious.

In fact, the original nickname for Higgs, was ‘that goddam particle’. It was so christened by scientist and Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, who wrote a book about the Higgs boson called ‘The God Particle: If the universe is the answer, what is the question?’ He preferred the damnation term to describe the elusive Higgs, but his publishers were more polite.

And, so, God became part of the story,  which I, being a believer in God, find somewhat ironic and rather entertaining. It’s another reason I’m captivated by Higgs.

Although many of the scientists involved in the Higgs discovery would prefer not to have God mentioned at all, it seems He will show up, invited or not.  God’s name is all over this discovery, even though it would seem by accident.

It makes me wonder if God isn’t smiling about this latest scientific breakthrough.  I like to picture him being rather delighted that humans have solved another piece of the cosmic puzzle, and have even managed to do some good along the way.

Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears each Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Contact her at lmacgibbon@gmail and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.

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