Have you heard the one about the Higgs boson? The subatomic particle walks into a church, and a priest says, “What are you doing here?” Higgs responds: “You can’t have mass without me.”
If you laughed, congratulations — you know enough about the mysterious particle to get the joke. If you tuned out at “boson,” you’d better keep reading.
On July 4, physicists made a huge announcement: They had found the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called God particle — or at least a Higgs-like particle. Higgs has been called the key to the universe because it imbues other particles with mass — and that explains the joke above.
It took thousands of physicists and the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider, an enormous particle accelerator in Geneva that smashes protons into each other, to find it. But now the hard work really begins — for laypeople struggling to understand what it means. Who even knew Higgs was missing?
“The article I read this morning was so . . . scientific,” said Brian Connor, 30, a high school math teacher from Cambridge. “I didn’t really get all of it.”
Colliding particles, an invisible force field, even the word “boson,” which turns out to be a subatomic particle with zero or integer spin — it’s all such a mystery. As Boston University physics professor Lawrence Sulak said in an e-mail from CERN, the multinational research center in Geneva: “The subatomic world is not intuitive.”
Connor planned to seek clarity from a roommate with a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but, in the meantime, he was taking solace where he could find it. “I’m proud to say I also don’t know much about the Kardashians,” he said.
At least Connor knows what he does not know. As John Razzano strolled Newbury Street on a recent afternoon, the 35-year-old government employee confessed that he had never heard of the Higgs boson. “But I’m from New Jersey,” explained Razzano, apparently under the impression that the Higgs boson is a local entity.
At Fenway Park — arguably the true center of the universe — Nick Cazaropoul, 28, a sales representative from South Boston, was also in the dark, Higgs-wise. It was the top of the eighth in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, and with the Red Sox trailing the Yankees by five, Cazaropoul declared the game’s outcome more important than some particle he had never heard of, even if it is considered to be the last piece of the Standard Model, or theory, of particle physics. “No one ever explained it to me,” Cazaropoul said.
Never mind that the Web is full of specialists trying to explain the Higgs boson. It is not easy. Daniel Whiteson, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California at Irvine, tried to help by commissioning a very user-friendly cartoon. (Search for “The Higgs Boson Explained” and PhD Comics, or go to www.phdcomics.com/higgs.) But it goes on for almost eight minutes — and with scientific concepts like electron orbitals around nuclei, viewers really need to focus to learn anything.
The animator, Jorge Cham, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, said it took an eight-hour conversation with Whiteson to understand the subject well enough to boil it down for the video.
“It’s a very confusing topic,” Cham said. “If you really press physicists, it’s a confusing for them, too.”
Since it debuted in mid-April, the video has gotten 1.5 million hits on Vimeo.com, the video-sharing website. On YouTube, meanwhile, the “Hipster Pop Quiz: What is the Higgs Boson?” is definitely a less educational video, but its snarky tone plays more to the nation’s strengths.
“It sounds like a band or something,” one hipster tells the off-screen interviewer. “An installation?” posits another. “He’s a famous German entrepreneur,” a third suggests.
But even those trying their hardest to understand the discovery say they face challenges, the biggest one being trying to retain their understanding once they have finished reading a story about the particle.
Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, thinks he knows why. The problem, he says, is that it is impossible to understand Higgs without first knowing its “back story.”
“If we lived in world were the concept of a field was something we were all introduced to in high school, the Higgs boson would not be hard to understand,” said Carroll, author of the forthcoming “Particle at the End of the Universe.” “Particles make sense to us, but the fact that Higgs boson is based on a field becomes crucial, so you have to explain the back story before you get to Higgs.”
But what’s a field? Perhaps the best description comes from Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who passed along an analogy that is well-known in the physics world.
“The Higgs field is like a party in Los Angeles,” he said. “In LA, if someone you don’t recognize walks into a party, that person can walk in without any resistance to motion because no one cares about them, and no one will stop them to talk.
“As your fame rises, more and more people will crowd around you, and they will impede your motion. If you stop, it’s hard for you to get back in motion. The more famous the person walking into the party, the more ‘party mass’ they have. The people you’ve never seen before, they just fly by.”
Whiteson, the UC at Irvine physicist, takes it from here: “If this field exists,” he explained, “then there would be a particle which is the messenger of that force, the way photons are the messengers of electromagnetism. If the Higgs field exists, then there will be a Higgs boson.”
Why do we even need the Higgs boson? As the Hayden Planetarium’s Tyson put it, “No one has any clue how the discovery of the Higgs boson will help humanity tomorrow. No clue.
“[But] that’s what they said about the electron when it was discovered,” he continued. “People went decades questioning whether it would have any utility to human life whatsoever.” And the electron, of course, “birthed our efforts to generate and control electricity, which would ultimately bring us the electronics revolution that today we cannot imagine life without.”
Meanwhile, despite the excitement among scientists who gathered in groups around the world to hear the Higgs announcement, 7-year-old Ivan Paus of Arlington declared himself a bit disappointed.
For weeks he had been asking his father, MIT physics professor and Higgs hunter Christoph Paus, if scientists had found their quarry. Ivan knew the particle had something to do with mass, and his expectations were high. “I thought I’d wake up floating above my bed,” he said.
Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.