Beauty, simplicity, and symmetry

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Flickr.

The Large Hadron Collider/​ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Flickr.

If Einstein’s theory of rel­a­tivity is wrong, then this whole thing we call the uni­verse is either a dream or it works a lot dif­fer­ently than we sus­pected. So far, all the pieces of the theory have fallen into place, with good evi­dence to sup­port them. All except one.

We’ve been hearing about it for a while, the so-​​called “God par­ticle” that gives all other par­ti­cles, and thus every­thing else imag­in­able, mass. Still, we’ve never actu­ally seen it. That’s because it’s not really see­able. It can only be viewed indi­rectly, as if looking at your­self in a mirror through another mirror.

Around this time last year, sci­en­tists at the Large Hadron Col­lider in Geneva, Switzer­land revealed data sug­gesting they might be seeing some­thing that looked like some­thing that could have come from the Higgs boson (that’s the “God particle’s” offi­cial name). We started seeing head­lines like “Maybe Higgs: What the LHC Might or Might Not Have Seen.”

Rumors of its exis­tence had been coming up for a while. So when new head­lines emerged ear­lier this month saying things like “Physi­cists Increas­ingly Con­fi­dent They’ve Found the Higgs Boson” and “Higgs Boson Pos­i­tively Iden­ti­fied,” I didn’t get too excited. I’m not a par­ticle physi­cist, so the dif­fer­ence between “maybe Higgs” and “increasing con­fi­dence” in the Higgs means little to me.
But one thing I do know, from talking to North­eastern physics pro­fes­sors like Emanuela Bar­beris and Darien Wood, the more data we study and the more evi­dence of the Higgs, the closer we get to under­standing our universe.

And this is where I get to the real point of this blog post. I debated up above using the term “God par­ticle” because it’s not really in good favor. A lot of physi­cists don’t like it because, well, it’s not at all cor­rect. The Higgs isn’t as simple as the term implies. But after I watched the fol­lowing TEDx talk from North­eastern pro­fessor Toyoko Ori­moto, I real­ized there’s some­thing else about the Higgs that does in fact jive with the term. And that’s simply its beauty.

Physi­cists want to under­stand why par­ti­cles have mass, she says. “Of course, we could say that they just do.…but we physi­cists don’t find that sat­is­fying. We don’t find that beautiful.”

In her lec­ture, Ori­moto shows how sci­ence is quite a bit like art, even when its dis­cov­eries are as minute as turning “maybe” into “increas­ingly con­fi­dent.” Like art she says, sci­ence is useful because it expands our minds and imag­i­na­tions. The same way a beau­tiful painting serves the world, so to can a beau­tiful dis­covery. I’ll let Ori­moto take it from here: