But on top of all these, what amplifies our attraction to the Higgs boson is its elusiveness. Not just elusive as in hard to find, elusive as in hard to get our heads round what it does. That’s not down to all the myriad articles and analogies of recent days being poor or the boson being beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. It’s because the Higgs and its associated field convey mass....and mass is something we are most pretty comfortable with on a day to day basis, but which suddenly gets very complicated when you try to couch it in terms of particles and fields. So the net result is that instead of gaining illumination, we can end up feeling dimmer.
For a conventional story, even a science news story, not easily being able to get a handle on what it’s all about would be a problem. But not the Higgs. Instead the slippery business of its involvement with mass is downplayed, or often simply not mentioned. And the fact that it is the Higgs associated field which is the “true prize”, as Nature journal put it, is simply overlooked in most publications. Instead, the focus is on various permutations of how momentous it is.
If more of us were clear about why rather than the wow, the results from Cern would have had less impact as we’d have our own views on the significance of what they had found. Instead we are expected to just accept that if enough Higgs bigwigs say it’s monumentally important, then it must be.
Or as Lewis Carroll put it, “what I tell you three times is true”. The reality is that science is often complex, collaborative and continuous. But with stories we like beginnings and ends and strong lead characters, so when we take research down the rabbit hole and into the media things tend to shrink and grow. It’s fitting then, that Cern made their announcement 150 years to the day after Carroll first came up with the story that became Alice in Wonderland. And that, with five sigma certainty, is far more fantastical than even the one about the Higgs being found.
* Francois Englert, Robert Brout, Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen. Only a footnote, but better than the usual nothing