In a lecture at MIT in 1964, the renowned physicist Richard Feynman offered a wonderfully candid disclaimer: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Feynman urged his audience to “just relax and enjoy” his description of the seemingly impossible subatomic world. As it happens, 1964 was also the year that the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs first hypothesized that there must be an invisible field in which a type of particle called a boson acted to give mass to other particles. If the Higgs boson didn’t exist, much of what scientists believe about the formation of the universe would have to be thrown out.
Ever since this month’s announcement in Geneva that a particle that seems to be the Higgs boson had finally been observed, physicists have tried valiantly to describe the significance of the discovery in accessible terms. One common metaphor to explain how the Higgs field endows particles with mass — by comparing the field to a Hollywood party, in which celebrities attract a growing throng of admirers — may say more about film-industry etiquette than about the Higgs boson. But the halting quality of these explanations is part of what makes Feynman’s advice so resonant. You can join in applauding what researchers have now confirmed — and at the same time accept that “nobody knows how it can be like that.”