Searching for news that matters
December 19th, 2011
08:02 AM ET

Searching for news that matters

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.

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Filed under: Practice • Science
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. dot

    so where is the news that matters? not on cnn

    December 30, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  2. Hector Sanchez

    this is a version to teach kids and all schools should have laptops for kids and teens and do that with our tax money and stop allowing this expensive useless school system to continue. And it should be 4 hours long 12pm-4pm and kids and teenagers should be able to let the kids choose which class to pick on Monday or Tuesday let say math for four hours Monday Tuesday English and like that and that only or gym for a hour one day and Spanish for a hour the next but not this expensive retarted school system Finland isn't even like the one we currently have and why should it why should we not want to be different and be the same boring poor country because of innovaters not being in washington that should be a requirement to be a congressmen like you got to have experience in being a psychologist or counseling or helping people like jail bonding or anything useful to give america an inspiration to vote instead of this mafia coming over and not and the people not knowing whats going on and just conforming to the corruption. we don't want any presidents like George Bush or a ignorant president or a one that doesn't have highly qualified consul or congress we don't what a useless government wasting our money and raising taxes because of there futile and way useless way of spending it we don't want a crack head of a president making crappy decisions damn

    December 22, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  3. Hector Sanchez


    December 22, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  4. Guest

    What is mind? No matter

    What is matter? Never mind

    December 21, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  5. Physics-lite

    Dear CNN and Professor Greene?
    I find it very funny that you are using a cartoon of Einstein with this article.
    I quote your article here;
    “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.”
    If I am reading this right you think that it is the “Higgs particle” that is at work in the tiny diodes, switches and integrated circuits.
    If you have truly understand Newton’s and Einstein’s and the theory radio as all HAM’s do or should, you would understand that if you say it is caused by Higgs theory it would be in the from of Higgs field theory not a particle. I t is a field of flux or force, and that force of flux would be the Weak / Electromagnetic force that makes those tiny diodes, switches and integrated circuits as they do.
    By the way I was of the understanding that the GOD Particle was to be a particle that brings about Gravity. But that is not true either!
    For it is the “TWO universal FORCES” of nature that converts mater’s normal forces into Gravitational Fields.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:04 am |
  6. MELLI


    December 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm |