The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.
A lot of people don’t know that many of the great discoveries in particle physics are largely exercises in statistical analysis. Flipping a coin a dozen times will provide a very limited understanding of probability. A run of a million tosses will sharply define the limits of probability. Getting seven heads in ten tosses is not especially noteworthy. Getting seven hundred thousand heads out of a million tosses would reveal something real at work on the coin.
So it goes in particle physics. Small things need lots of samples to paint a complete picture. Instead of flipping coins in the air, the physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, use two beams of protons traveling in a vacuum at 99.9999% of the speed of light around a 17-mile-long magnetic ring. The two beams are traveling in opposite directions and are magnetically maneuvered to collide within a detector the size of a house. Each experimental run produces hundreds of quadrillions of collisions. Those collisions are individual data points that, cumulatively show the presence of... something, right where the Higgs boson, and nothing else, ought to be. To paraphrase Joe Biden, it’s really kind of a big deal.
The 40-year-long search for the Higgs boson is a fascinating and inspiring story of really smart people doing really smart things. The technology manifest in the Large Hadron Collider is dazzling in scale, complexity and vision. It is the largest most complex machine ever devised by humans, and is being used to slowly, meticulously peel back the layers to get a glimpse of the of the inner workings of the Universe. The very asking of the question, what causes stuff to have mass, has more profound implications for understanding reality than when Isaac Newton first noticed that gravity was a thing. The discovery of the Higgs boson has already shown us something about the universe - something deep and fundamental - that we did not know a week ago. And it’s only running at half power. As a species, we are all richer for the discovery of the Higgs boson in ways that may take decades, or centuries, to understand.
Those with less propensity for fascination want to know what are the practical applications for such a discovery? Ask a person in 1957 what the laser could be used for. I hope it means that anti-gravity belts will be available by my next birthday.
But there is another aspect of this discovery that has other, equally profound implications. This discovery is not merely the validation of an important theory about the fabric of the universe. In a very big way, the discovery of the Higgs boson further anchors us to a material universe that works on principles and parameters dictated by the very nature of its component parts.
The discovery is yet another demonstration of Scientific methodology as the scrupulous process by which humankind acquires and authenticates all knowledge. The importance of this becomes more obvious when contrasted against the current resurgence of rabid religionism, especially the unabashed and exuberant anti-intellectualism of those who assert that they hold special knowledge, supplied by talkative deities, and who strive to supplant Science with bronze age origin fables.
The illiterate sheepherders of the Middle East, upon whose wisdom many people base their worldview, were wrong about the size, shape, structure, location, formation, behavior, age, and relative importance of the Earth. They were wrong about astronomy, biology, chemistry, cosmology, history, geography, geology, medicine, zoology, the treatment of women and personal grooming. And pretty much everything else. In the absence of science, they operated on superstition. It’s not that they didn’t know the right answers, they didn’t even know the questions. Rather than real knowledge, they produced urban legends and destructive cultural behaviors that plague mankind to this day. The ancient religions possess no methodology for the validation of knowledge, but are quite good at the denial and destruction of knowledge. You can look it up on their Web sites.
The discovery of the Higgs boson is new high ground in that struggle and pushes our understanding of the universe out to a new horizon. Higgs is a big win for science and for the smart people who know more than just answers, they know the right questions to ask.