This past weekend, the Guardian ran a terrific story on the search for the "God particle," the as-yet unseen speck that would provide evidence for a theorized universal field that particle physicists believe is responsible for mass. From "The god of small things:"
Until recently, few even questioned where mass comes from. Newtoncoined the term in 1687 in his famous tome, Principia Mathematica, and for 200 years scientists were happy to think of mass as something that simply existed. Some objects had more mass than others - a brick versus a book, say - and that was that. But scientists now know the world is not so simple. While a brick weighs as much as the atoms inside it, according to the best theory physicists have - one that has passed decades of tests with flying colours - the basic building blocks inside atoms weigh nothing at all. As matter is broken down to ever smaller constituents, from molecules to atoms to quarks, mass appears to evaporate before our eyes. Physicists have never fully understood why.
While working on the conundrum, Higgs came up with an elegant mechanism to solve the problem. It showed that at the very beginning of the universe, the smallest building blocks of nature were truly weightless, but became heavy a fraction of a second later, when the fireball of the big bang cooled. His theory was a breakthrough in itself, but something more profound dropped out of his calculations.
Higgs's theory showed that mass was produced by a new type of field that clings to particles wherever they are, dragging on them and making the heavy. Some particles find the field more sticky than others. Particles of light are oblivious to it. Others have to wade through it like an elephant in tar. So, in theory, particles can weigh nothing, but as soon as they are in the field, they get heavy.
In May the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland will be switched on. Able to send protons smashing into each other at 14 times the energy of the Fermilab collider, the Higgs boson might be unmasked at last. If so, it would provide evidence of a universal - in the most literal sense of the word - physical canvas, stretching across the cosmos from beginning to end.
Elsewhere in the article Peter Higgs, after whom the elusive quarry is named, expresses misgivings about the nickname that has stuck to the theorized particle. Why offend believers by calling it the "God particle?" I'm not offended. I'm not offended for this reason.
At their very best, human languages - whether mathematical or natural - always point to unknown lands.
Whatever the physics involved, whatever the complexity of the math that expresses this reality, our ability to pin down what is slips always ahead, conditioned by the unknown. And in fact, asking what is questions about what can only be conceived through language will often provide paradoxical answers.
It's us. Language has a thrilling but incomplete grip on reality. The mathematical suggestion that something like the Higgs boson even exists is thus a faith statement - warranted, yes - as is this paragraph elsewhere in the Guardian piece.
...Whatever name it takes, many scientists believe that finding the particle will not only reveal the origin of mass, but will nudge open the door to a new realm of unknowns. We can see only 4% of the matter that makes up the universe. The Higgs particle may shed light on the rest - the dark matter in which galaxies form, and the dark energy that drives the expansion of the universe, for example. The particle may also shed light on string theory, an ambitious but powerful way of viewing the universe that sees every particle not as a point, but as a vibrating string of energy, where different frequencies create different particles.
And after that?
Only words can say.