Woo hoo! Science!

8 Jul

Image(xkcd)

Christopher Buckley has a pretty informative Q.A. in the New York Times about the Higgs discovery:

Q. What exactly is a Higgs boson, and why all this fuss?

A. Essentially, it’s an eentsy-teensy-weensy particle — we’re talking small here — that contains the answers to how the universe came about, including whether God was involved. As for the “fuss,” the CERN laboratory in Geneva, where the particle was discovered, spent $10 billion on its Large Hadron Collider. Over the last two years, 800 trillion (give or take) proton-proton collisions have been performed, which works out to — what? — maybe not so much per collision, but 10 billion is still 10 billion. For that kind of dough, you expect more bang for your buck than, “Ja, ja, we’re working on it, go away!” Physicists — spare me.

Q. How did they discover it?

A. It’s not rocket science, O.K.? Basically, two guys with Ph.D.’s, one Swiss and one from some other country — they don’t have to speak the same language or even get along — stand in this really long tunnel near Geneva and fire protons at each other. When the little bell on top of the Large Hadron Collider goes ding-a-ling, presto, there’s your Higgs boson, in the in-box. But then you need this ginormous magnifying glass to find the little bugger. Anyway, they did. Finally!

Full Q.A. after the jump…

Q. Why is it so expensive?

A. The bell is handmade. And the magnifying glass must be made out of melted diamonds or something. They practically fainted when they got the bill for that. Then there’s the tunnel, and they’re not cheap. Then there’s the tanning salon bills for the Ph.D.’s, who have to spend their lives in tunnels. Then there was this huge kerfuffle a few years ago, with these whack-job groups suing CERN, saying it was going to create a black hole that would suck the entire solar system into it, like Jabba the Hutt and endo-finito, human life, as we know it. (Do you believe?) So CERN had to go to court to get that thrown out, and if you think lawyers in the United States are expensive, try Swiss particle-physics lawyers. Talk about black holes. So it all adds up, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Q. According to the news reports, all the scientists involved were drinking Champagne when the Higgs boson particle was found, leading to jokes that it should be called the “Hic boson.” Does drinking help in particle physics?

A. Up to a point. CERN was embarrassed a while back by news reports that the two Ph.D. dudes were firing Champagne corks at each other instead of protons. Some scientists defended the practice, saying that Champagne corks are a lot more practical — and more fun — to shoot than protons. But who knows? Bottom line — they found the sucker. Everyone’s happy.

Q. Will there be “spinoffs” from the discovery, as there were with the space program?

A. CERN will soon announce a Higgs boson-flavored powdered breakfast drink. But historically, the Food and Drug Administration has been wary of drinks derived from the debris of primordial fireballs left after proton collisions, so don’t expect it at a supermarket near you any time soon.

Q. Will the discovery affect everyday life?

A. Well, duhhh.

Q. Hey, I’m not a science-y person, O.K.?

A. Sorry. The answer is absolutely. Sort of. Well, yes and no.

Q. Can you be like a little more specific?

A. For starters, you’re going to be hearing the phrase “Higgs boson” about 800 trillion times. You’ll be at a cocktail party talking about the Kardashians and someone will say, “OMG, Higgs boson!” and you’ll go, “No, no, no — please, no more with the Higgs boson.” So there’s that. Plus this Halloween, every other trick-or-treater is going to be dressed as — guess what? — the Higgs boson. What else? Ten bucks says Al Gore claims he discovered it. Another 10 says Mitt Romney picks it as his running mate. Romney-Higgs boson. Dream ticket. So, yes, it’s going to affect your everyday life. My advice? Deal with it.

Christopher Buckley is the author, most recently, of the novel “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?”

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