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Higgs boson metaphors as clear as molasses

The pleasures and limits of analogy in science

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Perhaps no field of human endeavor relies more on metaphor than science. The Big Bang. Atomic “orbits.” Evolution—is it a ladder, a tree, or a bush?

This is what happens when language is called upon to describe something whose origins lie elsewhere—in physical realms either too vast or too small for our everyday perception, in discoveries driven by math and measurements.

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For connoisseurs of science metaphor, the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, or something that looks just like it, was a mother lode. The tiny subatomic particle was both tremendously important to science and very alien to nonphysicists. As a result, every announcement—from news stories to the statements of scientists themselves—was couched in elaborate metaphor trying to make an unfamiliar thing somehow familiar. And these metaphors sometimes piled on to the point where the effect was more goofy than illuminating.

Anyone trying to explain the significance of the highly unstable Higgs particle first needed to explain the “Higgs field”—an invisible field that is theorized to permeate the universe, endowing objects with mass as they move through it. The decades-long search for the Higgs boson, which culminated in a July 4 press conference announcing the discovery at the Swiss physics laboratory CERN, was a search for a measurable way to prove that such a field might exist.

Dennis Overbye of The New York Times, previewing the announcement on July 3, said the Higgs field was “a kind of cosmic molasses”: In this popular analogy, particles pick up mass like pearls inching through molasses. But then Overbye added that this molasses “would impart mass to formerly massless particles trying to move through it like a celebrity trying to get to the bar.” In a postmortem two days later, he embellished further, suggesting that the process was also similar to “the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.”

In this accumulation of metaphor, journalists like Overbye are only following the lead of the scientists themselves, who have long struggled to come up with easy-to-digest descriptions of this boson business. The celebrity analogy, for instance, was first concocted in 1993 by David Miller, a physicist at University College London. Miller submitted it as one of the winning entries to a challenge posed by UK Science Minister William Waldegrave: On one sheet of paper, explain what the Higgs boson is and why it’s important to find it. Though that analogy was a hit, other scientists wandered into the same mixed-metaphor trap as the journalists. Oliver Buchmueller, one of the senior physicists on the project, said the discovery was “very much a smoking duck that walks and quacks like the Higgs.”

Meanwhile, the most famous nickname for the particle may have been something of an accident. It was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman who was responsible for branding the Higgs boson as “the God particle,” in a 1993 book. But Lederman must have been thinking of an angry, Old Testament God, since he also called it a “wraithlike presence throughout the universe that is keeping us from understanding the true nature of matter.” In fact, the story goes, Lederman wanted to dub it the “goddamn particle,” but his publisher demurred.

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The molasses metaphor has been dripping off of Higgs discussions for even longer. The earliest I’ve found it used is in a 1990 review of another book coauthored by Lederman, written for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Dennis Flanagan. But the metaphor hit the big time in 1999, when MIT physicist Frank Wilczek used it prominently in a New Scientist article about the Higgs boson.

Wilczek told me by e-mail that he got stuck on molasses “mainly for poetic reasons”: He wanted the title of the article to be “Cosmic Molasses for Particle Masses.” But the editors at New Scientist pared it down to the decidedly less lyrical “Masses and Molasses.” Though Wilczek said the molasses metaphor “was not one of my proudest achievements,” he can understand why it’s been so sticky. “It is so sensuous,” he said. “You can easily picture it, and even feel it, imaginatively. In fact, it takes some effort not to!”

Did “molasses” and the other analogies really help the public understanding of what was happening at a subatomic level in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider? Overall, despite occasionally opaque or ridiculous comparisons, metaphorical language likely did more help than harm. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist whose book on the hunt for the Higgs boson, “The Particle at the End of the Universe,” is forthcoming this fall, told me that metaphors are “an absolutely crucial tool in helping to make abstract concepts accessible.” But, he acknowledged, “they are necessarily imperfect,” and “people get carried away, thinking that the only way one can imagine explaining a tough idea is through metaphor.”

Carroll’s rule of thumb: “Metaphors have to be part of the toolkit. But they also have to be the means, not the end.” His suggestion? Offer metaphors only as “a gateway drug” (to use yet another metaphor) for understanding abstract scientific concepts on their own terms. For now, though, as we try to absorb as much of the science as we can and then discuss it in language we know, it’s no surprise if we sometimes get mired in molasses.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.

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