The Meaning of Meaning

The Nobel Prize for physics was awarded last week for the prediction of the Higgs boson in 1964, which was discovered experimentally this March at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland—the world’s largest elementary particle accelerator. A friend of mine, Kathleen, who knew I had a PhD in elementary particle physics ask by email: “What does this mean?”

Though I had not practiced physics professionally for many years, I knew about the Higgs boson because it was predicted by Scottish theoretical physicist Peter Higgs when I was in my first year of graduate school in 1964. I had just begun working on my doctorate in elementary particle physics. It was a heady time with new particles discoveries coming one after another. A new picture of the universe was beginning to emerge based on a veritable zoo of very tiny elementary particles interacting with each other according to the rules of quantum field theory.

My thesis work calculated and confirmed experimentally one very small piece of this particle puzzle–the energy spectrum emitted from a pionic atom. The grand solution to this puzzle became known as The Standard Model for how the universe works in the very small quantum realm. The Higgs boson particle was the last remaining unconfirmed particle predicted by this model, and the most important.

The Standard Model below is like a periodic table for the quantum realm; it’s made up of elementary nuclear particles instead of elementary chemical elements: Twelve particles of two types (6 Quarks and 6 Leptons), each with different physical attributes (such as spin, mass, charge, etc.), the Higgs particle, and including the four known forces of nature that move them about (the two nuclear forces-strong and weak, electromagnetic force, and gravity force). All of this makes up the Standard Model. The Higgs particle (i.e, the field it represents) gives all particles their mass. These fundamental particles, or combinations of them, make up over two dozen separate short-lived particles observed in experiments so far. (The graphic below of the Standard Model is from the Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illinois.)

Standard Model of Elementary Particle Physics
Standard Model of Elementary Particle Physics

I used this graphic to provide some visual context of the Higgs particle in my response to Kathleen. She is a retired well-traveled executive from a Fortune 100 firm who had lived in Switzerland for almost a decade as part of her international job responsibilities. I was excited at the challenge of boiling down the meaning of the Higgs award and wrote my “Cliff Notes” version of an answer to her question.

My short reply to her was that the Higgs particle is responsible for us existing; it is a manifestation of the Higgs field like the photon is a manifestation of the electromagnetic field. The latter gives rise to everything electronic from the light of day to iPhones. The Higgs field gives every particle, and therefore everyTHING, it’s mass. Without Higgs, we would not exist because all elementary particles would fly around at the speed of light and would not spend enough time together to aggregate into the diversity of reality as we know it.

I added the metaphor that we are like fish swimming in a universe of perfectly clear water we are unaware of whose resistance we only experience when we try to move in it. The resistance is what we call mass; the water represents the Higgs field. My friend’s quick reply by email said, My take, it is like glue….but what does it really mean in terms of our reality? We have wars, poverty, economic inertia…like, so what about this particle?

Obviously I had misunderstood the “meaning of meaning” in her question. Once again, as always, context is king; it always matters most. The dictionary definition of the word ‘meaning’ is “the significance of something;” Significance in what context? Kathleen’s question became more interesting to me.

Kathleen was asking the very practical question of how the Higgs was relevant in the context of the big problems the world faces today. After all, the pursuit of the Higgs particle took 40 years of research, 10 of which were to build the LHC collider to see if the Higgs particle even existed, and at a cost of $4 billion! Surely it must have some major significance for the biggest problems of the day with all that effort. The answer to this question is we really don’t know; it is too early to tell.

The core issue is that the prediction and discovery of the Higgs particle is a product of fundamental scientific research, i.e., research to produce new scientific knowledge as its only goal. We can never know what practical results will come from such research at the time of major breakthroughs like the Higgs particle; but history tells us that net improvements to the general human condition have always accompanied breakthroughs in fundamental scientific research going back to the discovery of the wheel all the way up to the Higgs today. For example, in the first half of the 20th century nobody expected that quantum mechanics would make possible transistors and microchips, mobile phones and computers, lasers and M.R.I. scanners.[27 A good summary of the “real world” impact of scientific breakthroughs is given in the link below:

My considered view on the impact of scientific breakthroughs is that each one pushes us closer and closer to the inescapable realization that we are all intimately connected to each other and to everything else down deep in the ultimate Reality, big “R.” These breakthroughs are like reality lessons that have been peeling away the old paradigms (world views) of humanity since time immemorial and replacing them with new paradigms pushing us slowly until we get the underlying theme of universal unity that exists in individual diversity. The Higgs particle says to me that we all owe our common existence past, present and future to an invisible energy field that pervades all space and time, and gives us individual substance known as mass.

That’s something of significance.

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