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Magical science

The Higgs boson has been in the news so much lately. People have some sense that there’s been an important discovery, but aren’t sure what it is and why it’s so important.

The best explanation I’ve seen was on BBC, where a scientist brought some balls and showed how they just rolled around on a tray. Then he added sugar and showed how some of the larger balls now began to collide with each other. The sugar was supposed to resemble a Higgs field, where you have subatomic forces that allow mass, that allow atoms to come together. Without this, we would not have the universe as it is today.

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Some physicists will probably cringe at that explanation, but scientists do need to “translate” science for the lay public. And I can tell you there were all kinds of attempts for this Higgs boson. Although the simple sugar-and-balls demonstration was the clearest, my favorite is a video posted on YouTube explaining the Hadron collider (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j50ZssEojtM), which has received more than 7 million views. The rap video features several people in white coat and hard hat, presumably the scientists, dancing and rapping to explain what the Hadron collider is and how it was used to find the Higgs boson.

Let me give you the opening lyrics: Twenty seven kilometers of tunnel underground/designed with mind to send protons around/a circle that crosses through Switzerland and France./Sixty nations contribute to scientific advance.

Yes, it’s a 27-kilometer tunnel that cost several billion dollars to build and to run. The rap video goes on to explain: Two protons swing round through the ring they hide/till in the heart of the detectors they’re made to collide.

I want to keep you in suspense so do visit the YouTube site yourself to find out. I’d suggest using it in high school science classes, but I have to say I did get lost after the first two minutes, more because I was so fascinated watching the dancing scientists.

Dancing elements

Just last Friday I visited my high school alma mater, Xavier, to give a talk but stayed on to tour the school. I ended up meeting the adviser of the school’s street dance group, which has been winning prizes for several years. Lo and behold, the adviser was Mr. Chua, who teaches science! The high school principal, Jane Cacacho, told me he doesn’t dance but is great at organizing. Anyway, when I caught up with him he was handling a class in chemistry and I wondered if the periodic elements are explained using dance.

There are, after all, several Periodic Table of Elements songs on YouTube, including a version by the Chipmunks. Check out one first sung by Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer in the 1960s with several versions, and translations, now available.

Seriously, though, the elements do have their choreography, as do atoms and subatomic particles and this Higgs boson. Yet, sadly, there is such a strong divide in many educational institutions between the arts and the sciences, between the social sciences and natural sciences, with the result that students in one field, say the arts, may not find the sciences interesting, and vice versa.

This Higgs boson discovery reminds us, too, that there’s so much we still need to learn about the universe, about our planet, about human beings, and creatures great and small. When I was taking college biology, we only talked about the animal and plant kingdom.  Now there are six kingdoms.  As Tom Lehrer sings in his “The Elements” song, “there are many others, but they’re waiting to be discovered.”

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For physics, I remember my high school teacher mentioning only atoms. Now there are all kinds of subatomic particles: six quarks, six leptons, the photon of electromagnetism, eight gluons, 12 gauge bosons, three W and Z bosons… and, finally, Higgs boson. You could make a song out of this, sung to the 12 days of Christmas.

With so much to discover, I used to gently chide students who would submit research proposals with objectives written as “To know…”  We do learn, and we do “know,” but only with degrees of certainty, never absolutely.  This is what differentiates science from religion: Scientists make no claims to absolute knowledge.

Turquoise tarsiers

Yet what’s so fascinating is that science will invoke the language of religion, and of magic. Religion Dispatches, a blogspot, has featured two articles analyzing the use of such language in the reports around Higgs boson. Yoni Pasternak’s “The Magic of the Higgs Boson Particle” appeared in Religion Dispatches, with several examples of the use of surreal metaphors. A striking quote from Daniel Whiteson, one of the scientists who worked on the project, could have been a scene from a Harry Potter movie: “The magic of a collider is that you can make kinds of matter that you don’t have around… It’s a kind of quantum magic where it sort of disappears into pure energy… We haven’t seen anything crazy yet, but there could still be strange pink elephants in there, waiting to pop out.”

And why not, indeed? Why can’t we get students to imagine tiny pigs with wings and turquoise tarsiers floating out of beakers, or spinning out of a centrifuge, just to emphasize how science is full of surprises?

There’s a stereotype of physicists as a serious and dour lot, but I think of our University of the Philippines Diliman chancellor, Dr. Caesar Saloma, who is a physicist and has a dry wit that he unleashes at meetings, in between statistics on student enrollment and electricity consumption costs.

Turns out he is not alone among physicists. Fellow anthropologist Mary Racelis forwarded an article from BBC News to me, “The poetry of subatomic particles,” explaining how some of the terms in physics came about. American physicist Murray Gell-Mann got the term “quark” after reading James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” which had a nonsense rhyme: “three quarks for muster Mark.” Oh, and physicists talk of six “flavors” of quarks: up, down, strange, charm, bottom and up.

And Higgs boson? Higgs is Peter Higgs, who first proposed the existence of this subatomic particle in 1964. Actually there were three of them and if they were all to be attributed, it would have been the Brout-Englert-Higgs or BEH boson, which would have been potential material for Filipino jokes.  Boson is named after Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose.

Then there’s neutrino, which means “little neutral one.”  And then there are WIMPs, or weakly interactive massive particles.

And what about all the talk about the Higgs boson being “the God particle”?  It turns out American physicist Leon Lederman first called it “the goddam particle” because it was so elusive and was about to use that as the title of his book about their search. His smart marketing agents advised changing it to the “God particle,” which clicked well with those who are religiously inclined.

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