This Just In: Brainless Boson Outwits Scientists

The science headlines as of late have been all a-titter over the looming discovery of the Higgs boson, or, as it is more often referred to (in order to sell more newspapers), "the God Particle." Others call it "the champagne bottle boson," while at least one physicist prefers "the Goddamn Particle," which "might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing." (See:  Leon M. Lederman and Dick Teresi (1993). The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question. Houghton Mifflin Company.)

The Higgs boson, must you know, is only theoretical at the moment. Predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, it is believed to be an elementary particle, unique for giving matter the property of mass. While its discovery is not that important to, say, Joe the Plumber, it is the stuff particle physicists live for. Nothing warms the cockles of a physicist's heart more than discovering some key component that helps explain the physical universe.

We describe its discovery as looming, of course, because hopes are running high that the discovery will be soon. Some estimates are for as early as this summer. I wish one and all success in their endeavors, if only so that science journalists will finally shut up about it and move on to something else.

Mind you, their idea of "looming" is, to state the matter in as kindly a fashion as my temperament will allow, rather inconsistent. However the discovery of the Higgs boson may loom, what the writers of attention-grabbing headlines often overlook is that it has been looming for the past decade or longer (please note that Dr. Lederman wrote his book nearly twenty years ago; "Goddamn" particle, indeed), and so far as anyone knows, may continue to loom for the foreseeable future. For that matter, it may loom forever. Who can say for sure? If a particle physicist can't, I have my doubts that any science journalist can, either.

Consider, for instance, this recent headline from the Christian Science Monitor:  "CERN Scientists Excruciatingly Close to Discovering Higgs Boson." Got that? Not just close. Not just really close, nor really, really close, but "excruciatingly" close. As in, "So close a damsel butterfly could ne'er slip her dew-glisten'd wing betwixt them." That kind of close!

Not to be outdone by the CSM, Reuters offers: "Big Bang Particle Discovery Closer: Scientists." Rather than quibble as to the degree of closeness, the headline makes the standard appeal to authority. Real, for-true, bona fide scientists are making this claim, for those of you who may have thought the claim was coming from Girl Scout Troop 428.

Yet in December of last year, the BBC hinted that the Higgs boson may already have been discovered by the Large Hadron Collider: "LHC: Higgs Boson 'May Have Been Glimpsed.'" I have no knowledge of the BBC offering any "Whoops! Never mind!" retraction. Still, I can only assume that the glimpsing must have failed to take place. Why else would the scientists of the CSM and Reuters articles continue looking for something that has already been glimpsed? Is glimpsing a boson fundamentally different from discovering one?  Or is this one of those Clintonesque "depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" moments?

No retraction, either, for the 2010 article from National Geographic, "'God Particle' May Be Five Distinct Particles, New Evidence Shows." Well? Was it five, or just the one? Maybe "Popular Magazine Misspeaks: CERN Scientists Apparently NOT Excruciatingly Close to Discovering One of the Five Distinct Particles That May or May Not Be Representative of the Higgs Boson, Which May or May Not Have Already Been Glimpsed" was too wordy to get past the editors.

Yet the possible glimpsing of the Higgs boson was already old news by then. According to New Scientist, we were glimpsing the Higgs boson back in 2007: "Higgs boson: Glimpses of the God particle."  Note the plural: glimpses, not glimpse, one-upping the 2011 BBC article by at least one glimpse. So why didn't New Scientist share this news with the BBC?

The answer is:  They didn't need to, because the BBC apparently already knew the old news before the New Scientist knew it, rendering the news older than old news. In 2004, the BBC had already teased it readers with "'God particle' may have been seen." So in 2004, the Higgs boson may have been seen, and in 2011, it may have been seen, either for the second time or for the first if the 2004 sighting turned out to be a flop. And don't tell me that the 2004 BBC was incommunicado with the 2011 BBC -- if Keanu Reeves could send love letters to Sandra Bullock two years apart in that gawd-awful "The Lake House" the BBC could easily have communicated with itself seven years later. You can trust me; I'm a scientist! (Actually, I'm not. I'm merely demonstrating just what the appeal to authority is good for.)

To date, however, the Higgs boson remains as elusive as ever. Moreover, I feel compelled to ask: What will the media say if the summer passes and the Higgs boson still refuses to reveal itself? And then the winter, followed by another year of near misses? Will its discovery still be "excruciatingly" close? Or will a science journalist simply whip out his thesaurus to find a more compelling adverb? "Extra super double plus agonizingly excruciatingly" comes to mind.

Here's an idea the science media seem to neglect altogether: the failure to find the Higgs boson may indicate a serious flaw in our formulation of the Standard Model. The issue has never been that the Higgs boson must exist, but that it must exist if the Standard Model is at all true. The Standard Model, in turn, is true only if Big Bang Cosmology is real. This leaves the scientist with only two options: find that damn Higgs boson, or reformulate the Standard Model by finding other options than the Big Bang, maybe even toss it out altogether.

To insist that the former option, for the sake of the latter, must be realized puts the particle physicist in an unfortunate position -- rather like a child trying to pound a piece of jigsaw puzzle into place when it may fit elsewhere.

The lesson: For all our confidence in science, we have to remember first and foremost that science is a human endeavor. All human beings, without exception, are flawed; therefore, any human endeavor will be flawed as well.

And maybe that's why we can't find the Higgs boson.

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