Higgs on Higgs

Peter Higgs (of the Higgs Boson Higgses) would like to correct a couple of misconceptions.

First off, the discovery of the Higgs Boson (if that is, indeed, what has been discovered) neither proves nor disproves the existence of a deity. In fact, the Higgs Boson has nothing to do with God at all. It's important to physicists, sure. As we've talked about here before, Higgs Bosons are thought to be a key part of explaining why some sub-atomic particles have more mass than others. But that does not really overlap with religious significance. In fact, according to Higgs, the name "God Particle" is actually a politeness-corrupted version of "Goddam Particle"—so called because the goddam particle was so difficult to find.

Second: Over the last couple of days, you may have been wondering what practical applications could come out of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Peter Higgs has a response for that. To paraphrase: "Damned if I know."

“It’s around for a very short time. It’s probably about a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second. I don’t know how you apply that to anything useful," Higgs said.

“It’s hard enough with particles which have longer life times for decay to make them useful. Some of the ones which have life times of only maybe a millionth of a second or so are used in medical applications. How you could have an application of this thing which is very short lived, I have no idea.”

But Alan Walker, a colleague from the university’s school of physics and astronomy, said there had been the same uncertainty when the electron was discovered.

Read the rest of The Telegraph's story on Peter Higgs' reaction to CERN's latest Higgs Boson news.


  1. Do people really demand that scientific discoveries have a practical application now? Unraveling the mysteries of the universe is not enough of an aim in itself?

    1. Well I think the general public would like to see something tangible come out of all these expenditures…  In the US we can point to various things we use everyday and say hey DARPA was the start of what is the internet, or how Velcro was attributed to NASA.  So while it is nice we went to the moon or have a presence on the ISS, sometimes the common folk want to see something out of it.

      Frankly I think as science moves forward the tangible benefits become more complex and take a longer time to mature to everyday commercialization.  If scientists can explorer the Higgs and create more understanding about gravity or mass then perhaps one day floating skateboards and gravity boots will be the norm.

      Having an understanding about the universe is nice, but a lot of people just know that if they flip the switch on the wall the light comes on.

      1. If we knew what the application of a discovery were, then is it really a discovery since the application is known?

        I have a beef with this type of application focused science. I understand that you want to know that your tax dollars are going to help you when funding science. All you have to do is look at history. When has funding science ever been a bad idea?

        Science needs to be done because it is good for the science. And basic science is the most important area to research. Forcing research to be dependent on potential applications means that basic science is cut. Everyone wants flying skateboards and anti-gravity boots, but then they make every reasearcher who works with fruit flies explain how their research might cure cancer.

        1. Manhattan Project?  I suppose it is debatable, but perhaps things would have been different if we knew more about the effects of radiation when doing all those above ground tests.

          Electroshock therapy?

          I didn’t really say much about application specific science.  NASA didn’t invent velcro, they just made the public aware of its many uses (and thus industry as well).  DARPA didn’t create a nationwide network to pass email or naughty pictures on, they did it in case of nuclear war.  GPS wasn’t put in place so you could have turn by turn navigation in your car, at least not originally. 

          I didn’t say science doesn’t need to be done, it’s just sometimes things need to be explained in super laymen terms so the masses understand what useful information we could possibly gleam from playing with a Higgs particle.

          Plus I’m pretty sure everyone would take a trade off of having a cure for cancer over gravity boots…

    2. If they do, then clearly they have no sense of history. Sometimes the practical implications don’t show up for generations, or only as the results of future results that the current ones inspired, and so on. Sometimes there are none. What matters is that you can’t usually know, in advance, which discoveries will and won’t be practically important. So you have to try and fund a bunch that look interesting and see what happens.

      1. The laser may be the best recent example. The first one was basically made to test a theory, and sat around as something of a curiosity for a decade before showing up just about everywhere.

        1. I was also thinking of general relativity (50 years to GPS). And before that, Hero of Alexandria’s 1st century AD  steam engine (1600 years to commercialization as math and science caught up).

  2. if we now have an identifiable, defined, sense-able notion of this thing that is in all matter in a base form then the commonality of all matter is established hence providing an addressable  property to holographic structures and potentiating a sort of communication that is at once distinct and common

  3. God Particle was a brilliant name, regardless of being shortened for propriety’s sake. It gives this event a sexy handle that helps justify to a wider audience the $10 billion outlay for the LHC, which might have been seen as a giant navel for scientific gazing.

    1. Maybe in USA, except that i am under the impression that USA withdrew from collaborating on the LHC financially.

    2. 10billion is nothing. We spend more than that on oppressing the middle east and hosting sports events. Even if it were for shits and giggles I think it’s justified in comparison.

  4. These science eggheads always need engineers to come up with a use for their little discoveries.

    I’ll tell you a goddamn use for a particle that represents mass itself: antigravity generation.

    Let’s get on it.

  5. Bigger explosions and better ray guns, obviously.

    What?  How else are you going to justify expenses to the public who’s more interested in voting for American idol then voting for government? 

  6. O.K.  thinking of playing devil’s advocate here.  I would say that the question of whether the Higg’s boson has religious signifigance would be entirely up to the individual.   If one day someone decides that the electron is also somehow divine then that is fine with me also (didn’t Feynman propose a theory that there was only one electron in the universe once?).  However, on a different tack, if I understand the importance of Higgs here, it imparts mass to reality.  In western philosophy traditions substance has often come to be seen as the “essence” of reality (Spinoza for instance).  If a thing is not real it has no “substance”.  So if we make a tentative connection between “substance” and mass then we can start to see how Higgs might be at the core of this.  A massless universe has no substance, it is in effect “not real”.  So Higgs imparts reality to existence.  Which starts to sound godlike. 

      1.  Just trying to see how far an argument can go,  playing devil’s advocate.  I m no expert at quantum physics by a long shot – but photons no mass?  That really focuses what little understanding I have. Maybe photons aren’t real?  Maybe they only exist virtually?  Does that mean they would never interact with Higgs?

    1. I might be misunderstanding your post, or maybe even what I’ve read elsewhere, but I gathered the connection to a deity was that it added evidence against a creationist universe, not for it.

  7. Hertz thought his discovery was a mere curiosity and nothing more.  He had no idea it would lead to radio communications, radar, and be a revolutionizing force in the next century.  Planck called his quantized states theory crazy, but the only thing that fit the evidence.  He had no clue it would lead to lasers and fast semiconductors.  We never know what it’s good for.  We’ll find a use eventually, and it will be amazing.

  8. The focus of research being the resulting knowledge has long been lost I suspect. I am sure there are scientists for whom improving human knowledge is their driving force, but the financial backing to enable research is now focused on practical results – usually in the form of a patent at least, if not a product.
    Universities seem to spend their money on aspects of education that will produce economic benefits these days, while cutting back on the arts at the same time.
    I would love to see a fund established to just support scientific research that seems promising regardless of its apparent immediate application, rather than see yet another failed bank or financial institution getting a free handout because they took huge risks, lost their shirts and now need a bailout to continue existing. If a bank fails, it should cease to be. People would quickly shift their money to the banks that take the smaller risks I am sure. 

  9. Primary, none directed research has been shown over and over to be the most profitable research.  It’s not just an anecdote.  It’s been studied and proven.  But it’s sort of counter intuitive in a way that makes a lot of people, a lot of politicians, and a lot of business leaders ignore that fact.

    Just one minor example out of thousands: public funding for the search for the Higgs boson just happened to result in the World Wide Web.

  10. It’s a real shame that Peter Higgs was far too polite to call his theoretical boson the ‘Jesus H Christ This Is A Difficult Bastard To Find Particle’.

Comments are closed.