The Higgs: What's The Big Deal?

Jul 4, 2012

Now that we have the long-awaited announcement on the Higgs, it's time to ask that other question. You know the question I am talking about, the one that makes so much sense and yet we blue-sky research researchers cringe whenever someone brings it up.

"So what? What's the big deal? What's it good for?"

I call this the "Aunt Nona Question" because my Aunt Nona, who was not real impressed with me still being in school at age 27, used to poke me with it on every visit. If she were alive today and I told her about the discovery of the Higgs, she would raise a skeptical eyebrow and say "So what? What's the big deal? What's it good for?"

I won't waste space here describing why the Higgs is important for particle physics. Lots of other folks have done so (you can find links here, here and here). Let me just summarize by saying the Higgs was the last, and perhaps most important, puzzle piece in a theory that describes the fundamental nature of matter. Its discovery is like putting that final stone on top of a great pyramid or grand cathedral. At the same time, now that the Higgs has been discovered, physicists can get to work probing its properties as they try to open the trap door leading down to the next, deeper level of understanding about matter, energy and the cosmos.

For some folks, that explanation will be enough. When it comes to justifying the billions spent on fundamental research, the human aspiration to know the true and the real represents a kind spiritual commitment on the part of our species. It balances (a little) the far greater sums spent killing each other for stupid reasons. In doing so it offers hope that we can be our better angels right here and now via the wonder, awe and hope discovery gives us.

That is why I never had a problem with calling the Higgs the "God Particle" and always felt physicists were a little disingenuous in their disclaimers. We ask for a lot of money from the public to carry out these explorations. If it calls up religious metaphors then so be it.

But for some folks this "God Gambit", as I call it, will never serve to justify fundamental research. For them my response comes in just two words: the Internet.

How much money is the Internet worth? How many jobs has it generated? Lots and lots, right? And who invented the Internet? Well, that is a complicated question with a bunch of answers (poor Al Gore not being one of them) but one "father" of the modern Internet was, without a doubt, Tim Berners-Lee. It was Berners-Lee who came up with the hypertext protocols (HTTP) to make the World Wide Web possible. And where was Tim Berners-Lee working when he did this? CERN. Yes, that CERN. The one where the LHC that just discovered the Higgs lives. The World Wide Web was, in part, invented to help particle physicists do their work — work like discovering the Higgs.

There has always been a close association between fundamental research and new inventions. The link has tightened enormously in the last few decades. While I doubt you will be using a Higgs–O-Matic lawnmower anytime soon, I have no doubt that the investment in its discovery will be paid back. It already has been.

So there you go. Count your money or look to the stars, either way, the discovery of the Higgs is a significant step forward.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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