Honoring the Higgs

(CERN via AP)

Having been interested in science since my university days, I have been following closely the search for the mysterious, force-carrying Higgs boson, the so-called “God Particle” that gives nonzero mass to the material universe in and around us. If the Higgs did not exist, we would be diaphanous wraiths floating somewhere in the vacuum of space, virtual creatures popping in and out of existence like quarks and leptons, quantum nonentities. Of course, we rarely think about the Higgs, being preoccupied with the business of everyday life and the projects we are invested in. Yes, politics is important, financial considerations are essential, art and music are necessary (or should be), and my embodied wife is the center of my existence. But that is all thanks to the Higgs boson.


Physics theory predicts the existence of the Higgs boson (which includes the Higgs Field and the Higgs Mechanism, but that is for another time). The problem, however, was how to track it down experimentally. Theory is all very well but it needs tangible confirmation, which is what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN strove to provide. A further problem has to do with the stubborn fact that the Higgs boson can never be seen. It decays too fast and, like the quark, it is a bound particle. It hides in the shadows of sub-atomic transactions that can never be dispelled. It can be known only by the residue, the debris it produces when it “explodes” and scatters, creating a by-product that can be identified as emanating only from the Higgs and no other constituents, and thus affirming its reality. One thinks of Polonius’ advice to his servant Reynaldo in Hamlet, Act II, Scene 1: “And thus we do of wisdom and of reach/With windlasses and assays of bias/ By indirections find directions out.”

There are various ways of producing evidence of the Higgs from targeted particle collisions in high-speed accelerators like the LHC. One method is to smash quarks together to generate a virtual particle that then emits a Higgs boson. Another follows from the emission of two virtual gauge bosons that burst in showers or jets of associated particles. A third event involves the collision of gluons that makes two quarks that annihilate and yield a Higgs boson. In each case, the Higgs decays too rapidly to be captured—a lifetime of a tenth of a billion-trillionth of a second—but the distinctive manner of its decay and its remnant products allow it to be detected, by proxy, as it were. This is a vastly oversimplified description of the process— volumes like Leon Lederman’s The God Particle, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s the quantum universe, Lisa Randall’s Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space and Jim Baggott’s Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the ‘God Particle’, among dozens of others, furnish excellent source material. (Spoiler Alert: the subject is addictive.)


But the Higgs and the methods adopted for its discovery interest me for other reasons as well. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. True enough, but the mind is also like a large hadron collider, confirming theory by examining its scattered and far-flung empirical manifestations. When the mind is functioning as it should, it follows a similar hunt-and-find procedure as employed at CERN, formulating theory from certain givens and searching for its disparate products in the external, material world to test its validity.

To take only one example from a preoccupation of my own—the nature and consequences of Leftist ideology—the givens I begin with are the works of Rousseau, Marx, Engels, Lukács, Gramsci, and Marcuse, all seemingly unified in a general way—in scientific terms, they are “symmetrical.” The theory (or “equation”) I assemble entails the factual unrealizability of such utopian constructions except as symmetrical phantoms and as reified parodies of their original intention. The experimental process involves a practical examination of their social, political, and economic structures as they collide with reality. A thorough analysis of these somatic idealisms as they emerge from the primary texts and fragment into (p)articles of evidence in sociopolitical space may validate my initial hypothesis. The theory may be correct. The “Higgs” exists, in this case, as a force-bearing and enigmatic neural particle operating in the depths of the human mind and giving mass or weight to a possible and indeed plausible truth: Leftism as a program for life is unworkable and malign.


Such results naturally presume that the cerebral LHC is working properly and that it is able to detect the real-world detritus that confirms what in this instance we may call the “Devil’s Particle,” extrapolating from Paul Kengor’s The Devil and Karl Marx. Kengor followed the same modus operandi, studying the disjected litter of a broken symmetry. Of course, the species of Higgs I’m describing here is a multifactorial particle, a mental boson that cannot be seen or grasped but gives substance to social, political, and economic phenomena in the world we create around us, both the good and the bad. It can be investigated by distinguishing the branching rules governing its couplings with real-world phenomena. 

As it should go without saying, I am only proposing a model of deductive/inductive thinking—sequent logic and retrolinear congruence—as it pertains to all fields, subjects, and intellectual endeavors. It’s an obvious metaphor of how the mind functions when it doesn’t “quench”—a term used at CERN when the apparatus erratically shuts down. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his Biographia Literaria, “No metaphor runs on all four legs.” Clearly, neither does this one. 

But my fascination with the Higgs in its diverse applications remains intact. The miracle of an infinitesimal scalar generating a world of macro vectorials is surely something to celebrate. I regard the Higgs as a friend, my boson buddy, as we should all. It allows one to play with the concept, to indulge in fanciful speculations, to have what I think of as “explanatory fun.” More seriously, it is also a benefactor, for without the interactions of the Higgs I wouldn’t be here to fly this squib and you wouldn’t be here to shoot it down. It enables us to pursue the ideas, preoccupations, fetishes, commitments, and projects that give our lives meaning and purpose. It takes precedence. A spin 0 particle has conferred nonzero presence upon us. Will wonders never cease! It puts things in perspective.  


So we must be grateful, in the words of Murray Gell-Mann from The Quark and the Jaguar, for “the mechanism that breaks the symmetry of the zero-mass approximation and is responsible for the various different non-zero particle masses in the standard model.” It is the initial condition that allows for the expansion of our lives. The Higgs deserves our attention and respect.





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