I tried to get excited about the Higgs boson. I really did. I'm sure it's a very big deal, and I know a lot of work went into finding the thing. But even with all its hype, I'm ashamed to admit, I just can't get jazzed up about it.
I hope that doesn't hurt anyone's feelings.
Every time I hear someone excitedly explain Higgs boson -- or try to -- I am reminded of the pot-smoking scene in the movie "Animal House" where Pinto (Tom Hulce), transfixed by his fingertips, asks his mod professor (Donald Sutherland) in halting astonishment, "OK . . . our whole solar system . . . could be, like . . . one tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being?" Sure that kind of thinking is mind-blowing, but then the cops bang on the door.
Higgs boson -- aka the "God particle" -- is the stuff long theorized to give matter mass. The particle has been a scientific assumption for almost 50 years and the announcement last week is that, finally, it has been proved to exist. More than anything, it was confirmation that scientists for the past five decades haven't been smoking from the same bong as Pinto.
It's been described as the "Holy Grail" of science, so I get that the white-lab-coat community is exuberant. But what does it mean to the rest of us?
We of middling intelligence may not understand this God particle, but we've been quietly banking on it for a long time. I can't recall the last time I heard someone blurt out, "God, I hope this chair has mass!" Or, "If the Higgs boson doesn't check out, what is this thing I'm driving?" While the European Organization for Nuclear Research's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was spinning out evidence of what constitutes mass, 7 billion of us were, quite unthinkingly, putting our faith in the stuff to get up, go to work and feed our families -- just as we have been since our simian days.
In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes published his "Discourse on the Method," famously assuring the public that, at a minimum, "Je pense donc je suis" -- "I think therefore I am," or "Cogito ergo sum" as he later put it in Latin. It was Descartes' evidence, after doubting all that can be doubted, that we all in fact exist. Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years' War at the time, a conflict that took an estimated 4 million souls. The John Q public of the day must have been relieved to know that the bloodshed was all very real -- at least the mental anguish derived therefrom.
I don't mean to be a party pooper. The instinct to take apart the light switch or question matter itself is a noble one. It has dramatically altered the human condition over the centuries, mostly for the good. Knowledge of the Higgs boson will one day yield some very neat things, we are told -- maybe even time travel. When that happens, some scientist from the future can explain the whole thing to the spear-chucking Cro-Magnon man preparing to fend off a saber-toothed tiger -- if the time traveler can relay the concept before being devoured.