Friday, July 06, 2012
Moving mountains - one Higgs boson at a time
Most of what I know about physics is from The Big Bang Theory and everything I know about the God particle, aka the Higgs boson, I've learned over the years from newspaper articles - so that's not very much.
But what has got me interested over the past few days is the story of one man and what it took to imagine something that was previously unimaginable.
Peter Higgs, the man after whom the Higgs boson or God particle is named, has been waiting 50 years to be proven right. Even Stephen Hawking (yes, that Stephen Hawking) bet $100 that the Higgs Boson wouldn't be found. I suspect he's happy to pay up.
It can't have been easy for Higgs or for the scientists who, in the end, actually found the God particle. They've spent 50 years, millions of dollars, uncountable hours of computer and lab and personal time, to find something that may or may exist. They've built machines (like the Large Hadron Collider, thus actually moving mountains) that looks like and does things that feel, to me, more like science fiction than fiction.
For me, this story is about imagination. I know scientists will say it's about science (and it is that as well), but for me, as a regular non-physicist human being and a writer, this story is about imagining something into being. We do this with writing all the time. We start with nothing and we turn it into something.
I like to imagine Peter Higgs 50 years ago, sitting in his office for hours and days and months and maybe even years, his eyes closed and his brain filled to the brim with ideas about the universe and life and mass. A little twitch of his fingers, a subtle twist of one part of his grey matter, and voila! The idea springs into being. It's as if mountains, the earth itself, have shifted. It's magic. At least it is to a non-physicist.
And that's what has fascinated me about this story - the connections between the center of the universe, the invisible thing that gives everything mass, and writing. Peter Higgs imagined the Higgs boson into being, and thus a whole world.
Writers imagine worlds into being all the time. It's what we do. And readers do the same thing with the help of the written world. How many of us can see Mars as imagined by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Phillip K. Dick, Asimov, Clarke, and dozens of other writers over the years?
Writers do what I imagine Peter Higgs doing - imagine something into existence that wasn't there before.
And how cool is that?