By Michael Schulder, CNN
(CNN) To mark one of the biggest science news stories of the year, I've retooled an old story to make up the very first physics joke in history. Here it goes.:
A physicist is bending down, at night, searching for something beneath a lamp post.A guy walks up to him and says "what are you looking for?
Physicist: A Higgs particle.
Guy: Where did you see this Higgs particle last?
Physicist: I've never seen one. Nobody has.
Guy: Then why are you looking under the lamp post?
Physicist: That's where the light is.
Aah, if it were only that easy.
In fact, if it were possible to find a Higgs particle under a lamp post you would see every ambitious physicist in the world wearing knee pads, crawling from lamp post to lamp post, coast to coast.
That's because a Higgs particle. also known as the God particle, is believed to be the final link in a mathematical formula that explains what makes matter matter.
That's tough to explain in plain English, so I've enlisted one of the world's most respected and plain-spoken physicists.
Our particular tour guide
His name is Brian Greene.
In addition to writing a great children's book about a kid who flies into a black hole despite the warnings of his father, and emerges from the hole to a shocking new reality, Greene knows how to explain complicated science to people who are not professors of mathematics and physics at Columbia University like he is.
"When you push on anything, like a bowling ball or a rock, there is resistance to your push. That resistance is the mass of an object."
So, I ask Greene, if I could find the Higgs particle and eliminate it, then there would be no more mass, no more resistance, and all my stories would sail through CNN with no push back from the hands of an editor?
"That's it," said Greene. "The rails would be greased."
But not so fast, he cautions.
Even if it turns out there is no Higgs particle, we'd still have mass. We'd still have objects that resist your push. So we'd have to find another explanation of how that mass is created.
Pedal to the medal
How are we going to find this elusive particle?
By wreaking proton havoc in a 17 mile long circular tunnel several hundred feet underground near Geneva.
That's where the largest particle accelerator in the world is located.
In this circular tunnel "protons are sent whizzing around in opposite directions at just shy of light-speed, and directed into head-on collisions."
So these protons are like little linebackers, but instead of getting a ten yard head start to pummel the running back, they get miles to rev it up.
And then they crash into each other and create all this debris.
While sorting through the debris, physicists announced this week that they think, think they may have found signs of the Higgs particle.
But I still don't understand. Why is it so important to find, or rule out, the Higgs particle, Professor Greene?
The big why
"We know that protons and neutrons come together in atoms. We know that molecules come together to form tables and chairs and planets and people and everything else we see."
And, says Professor Greene, we think we know why they come together. We have a formula that seems to predict it. A very long formula, 40 years in the making, with one missing link. The Higgs particle is "the final piece of data that would complete our proof that our formula accurately predicts outcomes."
What outcomes? It can't predict the outcome of a person's hunt for a job. Or a Fantasy Football game. Or how long you'll live.
But it's a mistake to limit yourself to practical thinking.
For example, Quantum mechanics, which we won't explain here, sounds like an "esoteric theory," says Greene. It was developed in the 1920s. But "the insights from quantum mechanics allow us to create tiny diodes, switches and integrated circuits which are at the heart of modern technology. " It took a half century to convert pure theory into powerful practice.
You're reading this story on a computer, or phone, or tablet because of what we learned from quantum mechanics.
"We're reducing all familiar reality to its basic constituents," says Greene on the quest. "If you understand how the basic constituents behave, then at some deep level you've understood the fundamental nature of reality."
And, as we have learned from quantum mechanics, and many other fields, "Pure understanding yields insights that can lead to practical things. That's a pattern people should really keep in mind. "
A child's curiosity
One more thing about that kid in the book Greene wrote, the kid who flew into a black hole, got out, and lived to tell about it: After reading the book, I asked Greene if he thought that could ever really happen.
Given his knowledge of physics, theoretically, yes, says Greene, it could happen.
If it ever does, it will require the pure knowledge generated by a physicist.