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Particles in Motion

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week The Scrapbook enjoyed a sensation it hadn’t felt since 1995, when Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally proved, after 358 years, by Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles. 

God Particle

Of course, as everybody knows, the theorem—which the Guinness Book of World Records lists among “the most difficult mathematical problems”—states that no three positive integers (a, b, and c) can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two. In a particularly elegant formulation, Wiles proved the conjecture in two papers published in the Annals of Mathematics—“Modular elliptic curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem” and “Ring theoretic properties of certain Hecke algebras”—which The Scrapbook still enjoys perusing on rainy afternoons.

So readers can well imagine The Scrapbook’s excitement when the July 5 edition of the New York Times arrived at our doorstep featuring this headline: “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe.” This could only mean one thing: Some physicist somewhere had discovered a new subatomic particle that must be the Higgs boson—or “God particle,” in popular parlance—which, in the Times’s words, is “a key to understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe.” (The physicist in question, it turns out, was a team of scientists at a multinational research center in Geneva called CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider where the experiments were conducted.)

The New York Times was shrewd to put the search for the God particle in homely terms: “Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.” You can almost see the movie about the discovery, with the Large Hadron Collider whirling violently inside the Alps while a multinational team of physicists yanks the boson into focus. 

The Washington Post, meanwhile, opted for a plain-English description of the indescribable:

The Higgs .  .  . is so fundamental to the universe that, in its absence, nothing could exist. The particle is thought to create a sort of force field that permeates the cosmos and imbues other particles with the property known as mass—the resistance to being shoved around. 

The Scrapbook likes the idea of identifying the subatomic particle that, more than any other, protects us from being “shoved around” in an arbitrary cosmos. “Actively hunted since the 1970s,” the Post goes on, “the Higgs is the final major piece of the Standard Model, which for physics is the equivalent of chemistry’s periodic table.” 

All right; we will stop here.

Now, honestly, does anyone among The Scrapbook’s readers have the slightest idea what any of this means? No doubt, there are some physicists and mathematicians in the audience who can explain it all in so many words (and without consulting the Times or Post stories). But who else can comprehend these arcane details? And we were just kidding, by the way, about Fermat’s Last Theorem, which is equally incomprehensible to The Scrapbook.

The Scrapbook does not mean to sound unpardonably philistine, and we take it on faith that the apparent identification of the Higgs boson is another step in our scientific understanding of the universe. All hail the multinational team of scientists in Geneva! But is there a journalistic spectacle more comical than newspapers relating a shipment of inscrutable information in the same terms used to describe the trade of a reliever for a veteran first baseman?

If fully comprehending the meaning of the “God particle” requires understanding anything remotely like Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Scrapbook would just as soon leave Omar Sharif unfocused in the shimmering desert.

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