Musings on not understanding the Higgs boson.
When I was a student I was a physics groupie. This played out in a number of ways. In high school I read all the popular press books on theoretical physics I could lay a hand to. After going through what I could in the public library, I spent a sizable chunk of my net income in B Dalton Bookseller and Walden Books on the spew of Fritjof Capra, Gary Zukov, and Carl Sagan. I bought and read the biographies of the physicists hoping to find some parallels with my own development. (I always hoped I might be a Richard Feynmann in the making...oh how the young mind swirls with fantastic divination...) One summer I taught myself special relativity. The next summer I tried to absorb general relativity but as I could barely understand simple calculus the technique of non-Riemann tensor spaces eluded me.
As an undergrad I did a minor in physics, and took the core classes assigned to physics majors. These were brutal, and because I'd convinced my college roommate to join me I almost lost him as a friend. We had to work ourselves silly to maintain an "A" average in those courses when we could have been sailing through our electrical engineering elective classes with minimal effort. In fact, I still run into him these 30 years later at technical conferences, and every year he reminds me how I nearly cost him his 3.9 G.P.A by convincing him to join me in statistical mechanics 301 and relativistic dynamics 290. We both aced those classes, but obviously he was traumatized. (He now runs his own company but like any good Sicilian he still holds a grudge.)
During that same time we attended the physics lecture series given monthly and learned about quantum chromodynamics, the puzzle of the cosmological constant, and philosophical topics like the apparent convergence of the theories of Zen and various world religions with the stochastic mysteries of Schrodinger's equations.
Like most kids I had the attention craving impulse to be a "rock star", but just as strong was the will to become a physicist.
But like most kids I had a mom who would not truck the concept of having a starving "rock star" wannabe living as her dependent while he searched for fame. Nor would she allow that I should pursue a career in the literary arts while she and my dad worked to feed me - until I was 40, she would say.
"I'm not going to have a grown man living in his bedroom playing loud music while he tries to become a famous author," she would say.
I don't know if it was the juxtaposition of physics with those compulsions that made her lump them together, but she did say, more than once:
"You're not going to be a starving physicist living at home for the rest of your life."
To her mind, the only worthwhile compulsion I had was to be an electrical engineer. And so physics fell by the wayside along with rock star and famous author, and I became an electrical engineer - which turns out is really what I was all along. Thanks to mom for seeing that.
No regrets at all.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with Sean M. Carroll. Before I'd met Sean Carroll I'd never heard of him. Had I remained a physics groupie I would have immediately recognized that he is a fairly well known theoretical physicist on the faculty at Cal Tech and was with the thousands of less than well known physicists working with CERN. In the past year CERN validated the detection of the Higgs Boson, and Sean Carroll has been making the rounds on various TV shows (at least The Colbert Report and The Daily Show - strangely he says the best unfiltered science news on TV today comes from Comedy Central) and in the press (yesterday's New York Times) to advertise this discovery.
Dr. Carroll gave a one hour lecture at my company on the discovery of the Higgs. Then he had lunch with a small group. I was lucky enough to be invited to the lunch, and due to the magnetic nature of my personality and my prior experience as a physics groupie I found myself in total domination of the lunch time conversation.
Alas - I had at that time read none of the good Dr's books. Nor have I kept up with my physics groupie-ness or I would have been able to ask him more rational questions. After we spent a nice 30 minutes discussing things where I totally co-opted the conversation and blocked out my colleagues, he took off on his drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to get back from the SF bay area to Pasadena. I am certain that he was happy to leave my presence, as I am positive his interaction with me was one of those less-than-satisfying experiences he endures in the quest to advertise the achievements of modern physics to the world at large.
And after lunch in the company cafeteria I went back to my office to contemplate what the hell had just happened.
First and foremost - I felt really good. I still do.
Second - even after a private lecture from one of the most learned men in the field I still have no clue what the Higgs boson is.
Maybe the idea of having a great challenge ahead of me has reignited a passion for learning I had lost.
Here's what I know -
When physicists try to explain things to people who don't know physics, they use analogies. The analogies are easier and closer to the true concept the more math someone knows. But if you're on a lecture tour all over the country trying to explain why spending a couple billion euros to discover a subatomic particle that exists for a trillionth of a second - then you need some pretty interesting analogies. Because you're going to be talking to lawyers and farmers and doctors and all sorts of professional people with mighty fine brains but no background in non-linear math and spinors and tensors and whatever-ors.
The thing that gets past everyone though is that the analogy is not the thing.
The analogy is not the thing.
To get my point across I feel like writing that 20 times, and being this is a daylog being read by almost nobody, I suppose I could do it but I don't want to waste the bandwidth.
By the way - this is how physicists can detect from a great distance that they're talking to weirdos. Anyone who starts repeating the analogy as if it's somehow the actual underlying physics is usually trying to sell someone a perpetual motion machine or a free energy generator or a car that runs on hydrogen generated from solar power.
The problem that I have with modern physics is that the stuff they're doing is so far out of human experience that even the analogies make no sense to me. Maybe another problem I have with modern physics is that I know enough of it to know that I need a decade or so of "ah ha!" moments just to get to the point where they could speak to me rationally about what's going on.
Here's an example.
As an electrical engineer I have tried to explain electric current flow using an analogy of water flow. Current is like the water that's flowing. Voltage is like the water pressure of the flowing water. A fire hose exudes more water than a garden drip irrigation system. The analogy is that there's less "current" in a drip system than a fire hose. Similarly there is less water pressure from you pouring water into your glass from a faucet than a fire hose which needs to direct a water stream upward a couple stories to the 3rd floor of a burning building. That's the analogy for saying there's less voltage from a double-A battery than from your wall socket.
People understand that, and that might be good enough.
But voltage has absolutely nothing to do with water pressure, and current is nothing like the flow of water. And if you're an electrical engineer and you start using the water flow analogy to design circuits, you run out of luck almost immediately. For instance, there are certain transistors you can turn on with voltage and no current at all. There are current sources that can provide electric flow with no voltage at all. What the heck does that even mean? If you use the water analogy, it would mean water was coming out of something with no force whatsoever to make it move. That's idiotic.
But it's the way things are in electronics. And it's why the analogy is not the thing. But you don't realize that until one day when you're pounding your head against the differential equations that describe electronics and it hits you. Electricity is not water, and is nothing like water, and follows different rules even though at times it seems the same. For instance, the "flow" of electricity does not mean an electron goes in one side of a wire and comes out the other side. Nothing like that happens at all. Then what is flowing??
Then it hits you. All those years your professors were telling you it's not the same but you had no way to understand that. Now you do. You go, "ah ha!" It's like you just woke up into a different reality. And your life is forever changed.
Here's another example.
Say you learn how to program computers. Maybe the first language you learn is BASIC. Or maybe even C. And you know about all these object oriented programming languages like Java and C++ and Objective C and gazillions of others. So you get the C++ for Dummies book and you start writing C++. Because you already know BASIC and C, C++ is a natural extension for you, and immediately you're writing C++ programs.
But all your C++ programs look like BASIC or regular old C with some added class constructs and you wonder what the big deal is about. Shoving in class constructs doesn't seem like a new paradigm at all. It's just regular old C with added junk.
Until one day you're soaping up in the shower and it hits you - C++ has nothing to do with C. It's not the same at all. It's got a whole different religion behind it, and not only that, it's a different way of looking at the whole programming world. You've heard all that before, but now it hits you. Damn, this is not linear. Java is not just a C look-alike with strong typing and class data structures. It's a whole other thing.
You go, "ah ha!" and your world is forever changed.
Here's one last one:
You're trying to figure out this special relativity thing. Forget the math - what does it mean? (Actually, the math makes it obvious, but pretend you don't care about that.)
People are telling you - "your clocks slow down when you go fast," and "you get more massive the faster you go," and, "if I'm on a train going by the station their clocks look slow."
You think - what the heck? It must be true because Star Trek says so.
Then someone says, "the speed of light is the same for everybody." Ok. Heard that before.
But then - "the speed of YOUR light is the same for everybody."
Ok, suppose you have a cannon that shoots tennis balls, or t-shirts. Suppose the tennis balls come out of the cannon at 60 miles per hour (or 100 kilometers per hour if you're metric). If you're sitting on a tennis court and you shoot the ball to someone on the other side, the ball comes to them at *60* miles per hour.
Now suppose you're in a pickup truck with the tennis ball shooter mounted in the back. And the truck is going 60 miles per hour toward a player on the court, and you shoot a tennis ball at that person from the moving truck. How fast does the ball come at the player?
Ok, that's simple math. Speed of truck = 60, speed of cannon = 60, 60+60=120 Miles per hour.
Now light travels at something like 300,000,000 meters per second. Say I'm on the tennis court at one end, and instead of a tennis ball I turn on my flashlight and shoot a beam of light toward the guy on the other side of the court. How fast does the light come at the player on the other side?
300,000,000 meters per second.
More, duh. Is this going to get interesting soon?
Finally, suppose I'm on a truck that's moving 60 miles per hour toward the player in on the court. And instead of the tennis ball I turn on my flashlight and shoot a beam toward the player. How fast does the light beam approach the player on the court.
Is the answer 300,000,000 meters per second plus 60 miles per hour = ??? (maybe you're stuck on the meters to miles conversion?)
No matter, don't worry about meters-per-second and miles-per-hour. It doesn't matter.
The answer is 300,000,000 meters per second.
Furthermore, suppose you have a star trek truck that is moving toward the tennis player on impulse power of 1/2 the speed of light = 150,000,000 meters per second. And from the bed of that truck moving at 1/2 the speed of light you turn on your flashlight and shine the beam at the player on the court. How fast does the light beam go when it hits the player.
Is it 150,000,000 + 300,000,000 meters per second?
And so you noodle on that for a while, and bang your head against it, and you realize that the light goes 300,000,000 meters per second past the guy who's on the court no matter how fast you come at him. Not only that, but because speed is distance per time (meters per second) and because you're coming at the guy with some speed (again distance per time) in order for the guy who is not moving to see the light you've shot at him coming toward him at exactly the same speed as you see even though you're moving - something has to give.
Something has to give.
The thing that "gives" is time.
Think about it. If you think about it long enough, it will hit you.
I haven't got to the Higgs boson yet. I'm a million miles away from it in terms of ideas and content.
That's sort of the point of this introspective, navel-lint-examining blog.
Since I met Sean Carroll and read his book on the Higgs, I've been thinking about it a lot. Thinking about the Higgs boson has filled an important gap in my brain. I sleep better. The world is rosier.
I didn't realize how much I missed physics. My body has missed it as much as my brain.
I remember reading about many famous electrical engineers who had physics as their first love but wound up dropping out of the college physics program because they either couldn't keep up or realized electrical engineering was easier and took the other road.
I'm one of the guys who took enough advanced physics classes to know I wasn't one of those guys. I know I'm not a Sean Carroll or a Nick Herbert or a John Bell. I've met those guys, been in class with them, and they think very differently than me. Inevitably I would have been left in their dust had I stayed in Physics. EE was safer. I took the safe route.
Lucky for me I actually love electrical engineering, so it really wasn't a compromise. And I didn't have to work as hard at it, so I got great grades and a good job. Etc.
But my love of physics hasn't diminished, and I know enough about it to know what I need to learn to really truly understand what these guys are saying. I know enough to know the "thing" behind the analogy is something I don't get. I have no intuition about it. I can't feel it.
I'm sure I know what tensors are. And I'm sure I know what it means when someone says that there is a spinor that is part of the equation that defines the state of a particular particle. I know the words. But I don't feel what they mean. I don't know if the picture in my head matches what they're trying to say. It's like I'm being tutored by aliens who love me very much - and I understand almost everything they're saying but at the end of the lessons I realize they're sad because I didn't intuit any of their meaning.
I'm like someone who has learned a new language, and can mentally translate all the words - but I don't have enough experience to get the local humor.
Perhaps it's an aspect of modern physics that the discoveries they're making these days are so far removed from normal life that the analogies aren't even that simple. But fundamental discovery is often opaque to people. What good is discovering a new world if you can't go there and do something with it? Well, at the time of the discovery maybe it's no good at all except for the entertainment value. But inevitably having the discovery changes the conversation and the nature of the thinking so that other smaller discoveries can lead up to some value.
I think that it's important to keep discovering things, no matter what. Even if you don't know today how something will help you, it adds to the "bank account" of knowledge of the human race. Someday it might pay off. Or it won't. You don't know. We don't know a lot of things.
That's the essence of being a human - to figure out stuff that's here. That's the meaning and purpose of life. Knowing the Higgs particle is actually a THING that can be figured out encourages me to believe there is a purpose to all of this stuff of living.
When we stop spending our resources to discover the universe then we cease to have meaning. Learning is the purpose of everything else. That's what I think.
To understand the Higgs boson at all you have to work at it. You can listen to the analogies, and they'll just drive you mad, or bore you, and you'll go back to watching skateboarders on YouTube hurt themselves trying to jump over swimming pools and sleeping dogs.
To understand the Higgs boson you need to figure out where to start thinking.
One place to start is this: The Standard Model of physics. The Standard Model is a bunch of math that describes human experience: pretty much, all of human experience, at an a subatomic level. So all your electrons and protons and pi-mesons can be explained by that math.
The standard model allows for 61 different "particles" of reality all functioning within the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity at the same time. The math of the standard model said there would be a Higgs boson discovered sooner or later. People have been acting like it was there. Now that they have seen it, they breathe a sigh of relief that the standard model math is right and it's pretty much done.
Don't worry, though, there's plenty of other math and other stuff to discover like dark matter, and string theory, and gravitons and all different types of Higgs bosons - yes there's more than one. There's probably no end to it. So physicists aren't out of a job yet.
But the explanation of the stuff you can see has all been taken care of now, and that makes it a big deal for the human race.
Unlike prior discoveries, even though Higgs has his name on it there are thousands of people who worked on discovering the Higgs boson, not to mention the governments of France and Switzerland building a machine the size of a whole city to do it, and the thousands who did that.
As we get deeper and deeper into understanding physical creation it's taking more money and more people to do it.
You can go off and look up the standard model on line and you'll run into a lot of math that will look like hieroglyphics to most normal people. And as difficult as it looks - it really is. There's no easy stuff in there. Nobody can say, "Oh, just read so-and-so book on calculus and you'll understand it in a weekend." No way. It really does take a lot of effort and perhaps one or two college degrees to "get it". This stuff is the life's work of many people. And it might take a big chunk of your life to really appreciate what they've done at a deep level. You know that's not going to happen. So--
For the rest of us who don't have the background, we have to settle for the analogies. But again, be careful, the analogies are not the THING.
Because I have actually scratched the bare surface of physics, I'm going to try to start myself on my quest to understand the Higgs at a different place than the commercialized-Colbert-report-analogies of swimmers wading through pancake syrup versus birds flying through space. I'm going to start with something I know is fundamental and that's symmetry.
I don't actually understand symmetry. I get part of it. Not the whole thing, though, and it's a big thing.
Here's the pieces of symmetry I understand.
Suppose you're watching a baseball game. The pitcher throws the ball across home plate. If he's trying to keep a runner from stealing a base, he'll throw the ball to first base, or maybe second base. Maybe third base. There are four directions he could throw the ball at the time of each pitch. Each of those directions is like the other in that the ball doesn't care which way it goes. For the same amount of force it goes the same distance if it's thrown at the same angle with respect to the ground.
As far as physics is concerned, it doesn't matter which way the ball goes. The equations are the same.
If you're sitting in the stands near third base, a pitch to home plate goes toward your right. If you're sitting behind first base the pitch to home plate goes to your left.
It doesn't matter to you if you're trying to calculate the speed of the pitch where you are sitting. You could figure it out knowing where you are, where the pitcher is, and how he throws the ball. Whether it goes left, right, back, front - no matter.
That is - with respect to your inertial frame throwing a ball is invariant to a change in coordinate systems.
Similarly, if you're flying overhead in a blimp watching the game, it doesn't matter that you're in the sky looking down. The pitch is the same.
The motion of macroscopic things under the normal dynamic influences of gravity, force, etc. - are symmetric with respect to how you look at them. Not only that, but the laws of conservation of energy are preserved no matter how it looks to you. That is, if you're speeding by the baseball park in a supersonic jet fighter and manage to see the pitcher throw the ball across home plate - it doesn't seem to you that energy appears in the ball (or disappears) out of nowhere just because you're streaking by in a jet.
Momentum and energy are conserved. Things are symmetric. And the thing is that when symmetry is in force, and symmetry is not broken, particles are only created or destroyed in symmetric pairs. (When symmetry is broken, it's different.)
Here's another way to look at it - if you took a movie of the pitcher throwing the ball, and ran it backward, you could figure out the ball was going to wind up in the pitcher's glove by seeing the trajectory of the ball.
That's another type of symmetry.
Lots of things are symmetric.
The creation of subatomic particles out of free space is symmetric. Under the right conditions, electrons can appear out of "nothing" if there's enough spare energy around, but only if they appear with a "positron" to balance them out. If you start with nothing, and then a particle appears from nowhere, you can bet its anti-particle appeared from nowhere too, to keep things balanced to zero. That's symmetry because if the electron and positron meet, they disappear back to nothing (after emitting some energy...which is exactly the same amount that was there when they appeared).
Now, yes, I just said that stuff can come into existence from nowhere - and it actually does. And yes, physicists believe that happens and can prove it. Why it happens is anyone's guess. Nobody asks "why", they're just studying what is. "Why" is for religious people.
Many things are not symmetric. For instance, there are particles which are "handed". That is, there are particles for which doing things to the left is different than doing things to the right. These can have to do with properties like "spin". There are particles with left handed spin, and some with right handed spin, and some with fractional spins and whole spins that are either to the left or right.
Spin is one of those things that's an analogy. To physicists who say a thing has "spin" the thing in their head isn't the same as the thing in our heads when we think "spin." A subatomic particle is actually a wave. It isn't a solid grain-of-sand kind of object spinning like a top. But when we think "spin" that's what we think. Physicists think of the wave.
Why do they call it "spin"? Well, there are indeed experiments you can do that make the particles shoot off in a way that if they were tiny little golf balls they'd behave as if they were spinning a certain way. But unlike golf balls the spin never slows down. So it's not the same kind of spinning you think of or I think of. It's something else. And it's not symmetric. Things with left handed spin behave differently than things with right handed spin. It would be like if the pitcher tossed the ball to home plate and the people behind 3rd base saw the ball going in a different path than the people behind first base.
I know. That seems crazy. We have no physical experience in our lives that maps to that sort of behavior. But it's true in the quantum world. That's why the analogy is not the thing.
There are lots of other non-symmetric things and you would think I was nuts for saying that stuff.
And I'm not suggesting I "get it" and you "don't". I'm saying it's real and that there are people who do get it, and they have a really hard time talking to us about it so they make up analogies in the hope we'll share their excitement.
It seems like they're describing a Harry Potter universe instead of the one we live in. The magic is that the Harry Potter universe is this one.
Symmetry means things are in balance. Left is the same as right. Up is the same as down. Stuff can come from nothing as long as it can go back to nothing. Nothing is created that isn't destroyed. Nothing is destroyed that wasn't created. Everything is equal and balanced.
Symmetry is the most boring state of reality. If everything was totally symmetric, the universe as we know it would not exist.
The interesting stuff of the world only happens when symmetry is "broken".
Here's an example of something that is not symmetric.
Suppose I come up to you where you're having dinner and I pour a teaspoon of gray dusty dirt onto your napkin. I tell you that the dust came from the remains an Apollo mission moon rock that I pulverized.
How would you know if I was telling the truth or lying?
You could perform a chemical analysis on the dust, and see if it matched the chemistry of moon rocks. But suppose it did. How would you know I didn't find some piece of basalt on earth that was chemically identical to a moon rock and crushed it up?
The answer is that you can't. There's no information in the dust that you could use to do a CSI-style analysis and reconstruct whatever was ground up to create it. The information about what was there is forever gone. For all you know the dust is from a rock I found in a parking lot, or from a bunch of chemicals I got from a lab, or an old cement plant, or an actual moon rock.
Unlike the pitcher tossing a baseball you can't run time backward (unless you have the actual video) and tell just from the particles what that thing was before it was crushed.
This losing of information through destruction is a feature of thermodynamics called entropy. And entropy always only goes in one direction. If you take a big enough space to consider things - entropy only ever becomes larger. That means that over time, things only become more wrecked. More destroyed. Less organized and more random. This universe is not becoming more orderly with time - like a teenager's bedroom it's becoming ever more trashed. In fact, you can determine the "arrow of time" in most physical situations by figuring out which condition has more entropy than the other. Look at what is more trashed, and you can figure out what happened after what.
This is an analogy. It is not always true, and it is not literally real. But it's close enough so that you don't have to get out a college thermodynamics text book to learn it for real. But it gives you some basis to "feel" what physicists mean.
I mean to say, quite directly, that there may not be a symmetry to time. And thermodynamics is most certainly not symmetric.
We could have all sorts of discussions about how heating up things leads to greater entropy - but things left on their own tend to cool down, not heat up - and that requires a weekend of taking out the thermo book and figuring it out. Yes, you can figure that one out without a college degree. But the point is that there is the physics of symmetry, which says that there is a conservation of energy or momentum or whatever, and those rules are observed. And there are situations which have broken symmetry, and those situations usually involve the loss or gain of "information" or energy or mass.
And that's all I know about that.
Another thing I have learned in my very brief physics career is that the force of things happens because energy moves from one place to another, and when it does it happens through the exchange of particles.
The easiest thing to think about is electrons and the electromagnetic force.
When electrons lose energy, the energy comes out in the form of photons. Photons are light, and we can see light. When electrons gain energy it's because they have absorbed photons. What comes out, must have gone in.
When you see an LED lit brightly, it is because there are electrons in a semiconductor medium that are losing energy and popping out photons. The energy got into the electrons by actually creating an electric field in the semiconductor and essentially pumping photons (that you can't see) into the electrons with your batteries. The electrons "orbit" the nucleus of the semiconductor atoms. Each orbit requires a certain amount of energy. When you put photons into orbiting electrons they jump "up" to "higher" orbits (not really up and not really high - it's an analogy) When the conditions are right the electrons puke out a photon and "fall" "down" to lower orbits (not really fall and not really down - another analogy).
X-Rays are made in X-Ray machines by bending the path of electrons in very strong fields. The bending makes them spit out high-energy x-ray photons. The path of the electrons is bent by strong fields that basically pump photons into the electrons. Electrons feel the "force" by sucking up photons.
And so on. The point here is that the force on electrons is equal an electron eating or spitting out a photon. Probably one of the more interesting things about life in general is that the fact that an object feels "hard" to you is because the electrons in your skin push against the electrons in whatever you're touching, and there's electric repulsion between them. Your perception of that is a "hard" object, but really it's an electric force and an exchange of photons keeping the electrons apart.
Similarly, different particles exert force on each other by sucking up or spitting out different particles. The protons and neutrons in the atomic core exhibit forces by their constituent quarks emitting or spitting out gluons. The weak force of nuclear decay is "felt" by particles spitting out or eating up W or Z bosons.
The particles that are exchanged when something exhibits a certain force on another thing are called bosons.
The thing about bosons is that they don't follow the same rules as particles that make up the matter we touch every day. They have their own rules. For instance, you can't mash a bunch of protons of the same state together in the same space. They follow something called the Pauli exclusion principle which says that protons (or electrons or neutrons) have to be in different energy or spin states to be close together. Not so with bosons. You can basically smoosh them all together in one place and they're happy to be there.
What does it mean for a bunch of particles to be in the same place at the same time? I don't know. But I think in this case the idea of "same place/same time" is an analogy. It's not the thing.
This is how I know I have no clue what the physicists are talking about. I need an "ah ha!"
Now anyone who has stepped on a scale knows that he has mass. We tend to get weight and mass mixed up. Weight is the force of gravity yanking on the mass of us. More mass=more weight in a gravitational field. But up in outer space you would need to use something like inertia to see how massive something was (or if it created its own detectable gravitational field). If you were an astronaut at the international space station, and you were outside on a space walk, you would know the ISS is more massive than you because if you were up against it and pushed, with respect to someone observing you from a distance it would be clear you would move farther than the ISS. That's mass.
In fact, the very definition of the characteristic of having mass itself comes from how much interaction something has with the Higgs field, and therefore how much Higgs boson eating/spitting gets done. Massive things like protons and neutrons really disturb the Higgs field a lot, and therefore are involved in a lot of particle exchange. Massless things, like photons, don't bother the Higgs field at all.
The Higgs boson is a mediator of a force, which I guess is the thing that makes inertia possible. I don't know which force that is - but the idea is that the property of having "mass" is directly related to how a particular thing reacts to the "Higgs Field". When symmetry is broken in the Higgs field, Higgs particles (bosons) are created. These bosons exchange forces with the thing they're interacting with. The amount of exchange is related to how massive the thing is.
The concept of "broken symmetry" means that for some time the idea that some usually balanced quantity is locally and temporarily out of balance. Maybe left is not the same as right anymore - or some other balanced thing is temporarily out of whack. In the case of the Higgs field they are saying the electroweak forces are out of balance. This is what they say is happening when things with "mass" start moving around in the Higgs field. Balance gets put back into whack by the Higgs field emitting a boson. That boson gets sucked up by the quarks (or other particles) in the massive thing, and the massive thing "feels" a force. And things go back into balance.
I just spit out a whole load of things there. I said "electroweak" without explaining it. I said quarks. I implied that particles were being created out of nothing - well, actually out of an ever-present, existing everywhere, always-being-everytime-forever-field of some sort - and I never said what any of that was.
This is the problem of physics. Any one of those things will take a writeup as long as this to explain, and that will spawn off the need to create even more writeups, etc. And also, some of it is not known by any human. Like - how can there be a "field" of some kind of energy or matter or waves or whatever, that always is from the beginning of time to the end of time (whatever that means), and penetrates everything so is literally everywhere? At some point the writer says to himself that he's at the "leaf nodes" of the tree of that knowledge that he cares to write about, and he stops. One has to be comfortable there is a long road of learning. (You never reach the end. At some point you just stop traversing and enjoy being where you are. Some stop long before others. Some never do.)
By the way, they say that when symmetry is not broken in the Higgs field, it just sits there doing nothing, happily being the Higgs field, interacting with nothing.
Now there are two things about this Higgs field which really bug me - and the analogy bugs me because I know I don't get it. But it's this: there is "spontaneous symmetry breaking" that occurs, meaning that for no reason Higgs bosons just appear or disappear. Only we never experience this directly.
And the other thing that really bugs me is that the "value" of the Higgs field is some positive number everywhere, just when it's doing nothing. To me, this is like saying there is an electric field pervading all of the universe, and it's some positive value, meaning we could extract electricity from nothing just by sitting here and not moving - but I know that's not right either.
So I know I don't understand it when I think that.
Could it be that a static positive value for the Higgs field is what you need for things to remain massive even when they're just plain existing? Maybe so. I need an "ah ha!"
So what the heck does all this mean? What can be done with it?
I really don't know. But I think my attitude on this all rolls into this one statement:
I believe in life after death.
Let me explain - and I'm stealing this from an article I read a few weeks ago in the New York Times.
What I mean is that I believe the human race will go on for eons after I'm out of here. There will be intelligent life existing on planet Earth after I'm gone. And it needs to. For my own sanity.
Think about it - say for a moment that you knew that an hour after your death the entire world would be demolished by a passing asteroid. What would that say about the value of you? What about your life's work? What about the love you've given others and love you've received?
If everything is really dead after I'm gone, then it doesn't matter what we discover. It doesn't matter if I'm happy or sad. In fact, if I believe in the universal demolition of the human race after my death, then I'm as much an existentialist as any of the philosophers who believe that there is no existence after the passing of this one - that is - no heaven, or hell - or anything on "the other side".
The concept of the perseverance of the human race beyond the life of any one of us is the proof that many of us have to validate the human species. We are indeed a unique race among the creatures of this planet because we fathom existence beyond our own.
Because I believe in life after death (and "LIFE after DEATH", but that's another story) I believe in the inherent value in searching and discovering even when the discoveries seem so abstract as to have minimal impact on daily life.
Face it, if the Higgs field is real as the theories say, it's always been here and the only difference is we now can prove it. We haven't changed anything.
Except in that this life is somehow a great puzzle. What I have learned in my own search is that living this life right now is important - and my logic says to me that if it was important to have extra-human superpowers, we'd have them. But we have exactly the right powers we need to do the job we need to do right here, right now.
My father once told me that God put mankind on earth to discover all we could about this place.
He sold shoes and made glass bottles for a living.
He would have been absolutely captivated by the news of the Higgs boson discovery, and I would have had to spend a week explaining what I know of it to him.
It would have been a joy.
Hope you can read this, Dad.