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Why Is The Higgs Boson A 'Big Whoop' For All Of Us?

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 10, 2013 2:03 pm



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've talked before on this program about why Latinos in the U.S. are more likely to tweet and use other social media than other Americans. Today, we're going to hear from a Latino tech leader who wants to boost the Latino presence in the science and business of technology. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But, first, more good news about science and innovation. This week, the Nobel Prize for physics was announced, and it went to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for their discovery, the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. Our next guest is really excited about this and wants you to be, too. Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist. She wrote a guest post for Forbes called "The Higgs Boson: Why You Should care About The God Particle. And, Sadly, Why You Don't." And she's with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Great to be here.

MARTIN: You said in your post that the Higgs boson is the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st century, period. Why?

RAMIREZ: Good question. The Higgs boson links us to the Big Bang. There was an equation that had lots of different parameters in it, and it worked, if we found the Higgs boson. And we continued to use this equation without finding it. And, in the last year or so, we actually found it. So it confirms what we believed. So it's wonderful to have a theory, but it's great to have proof. And so that's why the Higgs boson is so significant.

MARTIN: Why is it called the God particle?

RAMIREZ: The God particle, well, that's a misnomer. And I think that's a marketing term. I think there was a book that came out a couple of years ago, and that was the title of the book, "The God Particle." The scientists actually wanted to call it the God [bleep] particle because it was so hard to find. It's been something that scientists have been looking for for over 50 years. But the God particle is a - it's a term because it's an ethereal thing - it's very difficult to find. Sort of like, air is all around us, but we can't really see it. This particle, the Higgs boson, is all around but it's not something that we can see, and it was really hard for us to find how we can see it.

MARTIN: Well, is it in part, though, because it does verify the scientific understanding of the creation of the universe? Is that why?

RAMIREZ: Absolutely. It's the link. So 13.7 billion years ago, there was this big bang, and we went from nothing to something. There were all these particles that were flying around and they had no mass. And now we live in a universe where there's mass. How did they get the mass? Well, it was the Higgs boson, which creates the mass, and that was the missing link. So it connects the beginning part of the universe to now.

MARTIN: One of the things you also said in your post is that there's this disconnect between the scientific community - if I can use that term - and the rest of us. You said that a few thousand scientists are losing their minds, crying and hugging each other. The rest of society is trying to figure out why this is a big whoop. Why do you think that is? I mean, it used to be that people were very engaged in science. I mean, the moon launch, you know, for example, you know, people landing on the moon. The whole country kind of stopped what they were doing to watch this, right? So why do you think that is?

RAMIREZ: Everyone remembers where they were when the moon launch happened. I think I was being propped up by my family to watch the screen, although I didn't know exactly what I was looking at. What's so obvious is that there's a footprint on the surface of the moon - tells us that we've made an accomplishment. A couple of scratches on paper just doesn't have the same effect, but it's also a footprint. So I think that's one of the things that was a disconnect. It's so obvious when a person leaves our planet to go to the moon. The other thing is that I think we need to spend a little bit more time as scientists to explain what we're doing to the general public.

And that was what my call to action was in that blog. We have a small percentage of people who are losing their minds, having huge parties and the rest of the world doesn't really know what they're excited about. So if we spend a lot of money to put together these huge experiments - the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs Boson was found costs on the upwards of about $10 billion. Let's spend a little bit of that money just educating people. Now maybe scientists aren't the best people to do that. I mean, we're very, very consumed with what we're doing. We're very, very busy and we may not have that skill set to make things accessible to other people. So in that blog, I was saying, well, let's employ. Let's get some help. Let's consider a PR firm or let's make a videogame or let's get Peter Higgs - one of the folks who got the Nobel Prize - let's have him do a cameo on a television show, so that we can just make this a little bit more personal about what's going on.

MARTIN: You said, I think the nerds got it wrong by not inviting everybody to the party, which is kind of different from the way we usually think about it as, you know...

RAMIREZ: That's right.

MARTIN: The nerds not being the ones who get the invitation. But can you help us understand a bit more about why this - what will change in our lives because of this discovery? I mean, as you pointed out, you know, people going to the moon kind of opens up all kinds of possibilities about travel, about seeing other worlds. What are other things that might change as a result of this discovery, this understanding - or this verification of this theory?

RAMIREZ: Well, those are the things that are hard to tell at this point. When the electron was discovered back in the 1890s, it wasn't clear what we were going to do with that. But this conversation wouldn't be possible without electrons because we use it for communication and the like. But it's more than the endpoint of science, it's the journey that's actually important. So on our way to finding the Higgs, we created this little thing called the World Wide Web.

We needed a way to communicate with scientists that were in hundreds of countries, and thousands of scientists for them to interface and have ways to communicate. And, you know, the Postal Service was no way that they were going to be able to handle all that amount of data. So we found a way to communicate and that was the World Wide Web. And you and I can't live without that today. So it's more than the end goal, it's the pursuit that makes us better people. And that's what I think the folks at CERN should share. You know, there's a lot of inventions that occur in the pursuit of these different things.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting. On the one hand, though, we live in a world in which science and technology is more powerful and present than ever. It is accessible. So many people have a smart phone. So many people throughout the developing world do their banking on their phone, right? And yet, on the one hand, you feel that there's still this - what do you think it is? A lack of understanding of how we get there? You see what I'm saying? What do you think the disconnect is? We don't really invest in it? We don't really care about how we get there? It's like a pot - we just want to cook in, we don't care how it's made?

RAMIREZ: Yeah, it's a good question. I think that there's an infinite amount of information. What we need to do is have individuals that help us understand it. You know, I love Wikipedia. I tell my students not to use it when they're writing their papers, but I do love Wikipedia. It's a first stop. But some Wikipedia entries are just so high-level. I don't understand what's going on. I'm saying that when you get that information, it's great to be accurate and to tell us things precisely, but make it understandable. Maybe we need a next level down. So there's not a dearth of information. I don't think that's the problem. I think it's the understanding that's missing.

MARTIN: OK. So now we're friends. What is a material scientist? Now that you've told me, I have permission to ask you and you're not going to make me feel stupid. What is a material scientist? What do you do when you're not trying to explain all this stuff to us?

RAMIREZ: A material scientist is a person who's interested in how stuff works - and stuff is materials. The reason why you're sitting in that chair and it's not falling apart, the reason why the sky is blue - these are things that chemists and a material scientist would be interested in. And the thing that blew my mind when I first took my material science course is that everything that we understand has to do with the interaction of atoms. Now atoms are about 1/100th the thickness of your hair.

So imagine pulling one of your hairs and whittling it 100,000 times. That would be the width of an atom. The way that these small particles interact is what prevents me from falling through the floor, for my pen working, all these things. So I'm interested in how - I guess I would call myself an atom whisperer or an atom hacker because I'm interested in how - understanding the behavior of atoms. And then, suggesting that they behave in new ways so that I can create new properties of the stuff that I'm using.

MARTIN: I feel so much better now.

RAMIREZ: Does that make any sense?


RAMIREZ: OK, good.

MARTIN: Ainissa Ramirez is a material scientist. She is the author, most recently of "Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game." And she was kind enough to join us from the studios of Yale University. Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RAMIREZ: Oh, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.