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Higgs And Aristotle: A Parable Of Ethers

Jul 18, 2012

Aristotle and Peter Higgs walk into a pub. Higgs, as usual, orders a malt. Aristotle, more of a wine fellow, stays close to his Greek roots.

"So, I hear they found it," says Aristotle, with a twinkle in his eye.

"It sure took a long time, but I guess they did," answers Higgs, beaming.

"You think 40-odd years is a long time? I waited 23 centuries!"

"What are you talking about?" asks Higgs. "You don't mean to say that ... "

"Of course I do," retorts Aristotle. "You call it a field, I call it the ether. In the end, it doesn't matter much, does it?"

"Yes it does," answers Higgs, hardly able to hide his outrage. "You just dreamed up this weird medium up there in the heavens. I actually did some calculations, you know, predicted stuff."

"You scientists and your predicting and measuring ... really, all it takes is a good eye and imagination. Don't you think my ether is a great way to describe what's up there?

"It was a great explanation 2,000 years ago, even some 500 years ago. But after Galileo and Kepler everything changed, you know?"

Aristotle eyes Higgs with disdain. "Are you talking about this 'method' of yours?"

"Yes, the scientific method, to be precise," answers Higgs. "The very useful notion that a hypothesis needs to be validated by experiments to be a meaningful description of how the world works."

"Meaningful? I'd say that my philosophy was more meaningful to more people and for much longer than your science and its 'method.'"

"True, your ideas reigned supreme for a long time and were indeed meaningful to many people. But being meaningful is not the same as being right."

"And how do you know what is right?" counters Aristotle. "What you think is right today may be proven wrong tomorrow."

"True, science is not infallible. But it's the best approach we have to get close to real answers as to how nature works," replies Higgs.

"In my day what mattered was to be persuasive," reflects Aristotle, nostalgically. "You had a good argument and knew how to defend it against criticism and that was enough. People believed you. It wasn't easy though; the competition was fierce."

"I'm sure it was. It still is! The difference is that we don't rely on strong argumentation, at least not exclusively. We need to have ideas tested. That's why the recent discovery of the Higgs particle is important."

"Do you feel funny using your name on a particle?"

"A little, but proud too."

"I'm sure you do. Even if it's just another kind of ether."

"A very different kind of ether from yours, A."

"How so?"

"It interacts with ordinary matter, the particles that make up water, earth, wind and fire. Your 'quintessence' didn't do that."

"Of course not, it was a perfect and eternal substance, my ether."

"Exactly; and we don't know anything like that," says Higgs. "Nothing is eternal in our universe."

"And how do you know that?" asks Aristotle. "According to your own method, to know that something is eternal you'd need to run an experiment for all eternity, a complete nonsense. So, you can't prove that something is eternal!"

"Touché, you got me," admits Higgs, a bit embarrassed. "There are things we can't know for sure."

"Yes, indeed," replies Aristotle. "And that's where all the fun begins, where certainty ends."

"Agreed. But to have your ideas validated is pretty powerful."

"I'm sure it is, and that's why science matters. But before this whole thing about validation came to be, to have your ideas believed in was equally powerful," says Aristotle, eyeing his empty wine glass. "It's all a matter of what counts in your time."

"Time for another one?" asks Higgs.

"Sure. Perhaps after two or three you will understand me better."

"Oh, I understand you very well, A.," says Higgs. "But I hope you understand me too."

"Of course I do, Peter. Congratulations on your homonymous particle. I hope you don't mind if I keep calling it the ether."

"Go right ahead, A. After all, there can be many kinds of ethers, right?"

"Yeap, and many kinds of Higgses."

"We will have to keep on looking," says Higgs.

"What else is there to do?"


You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter @mgleiser.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.