Higgs Boson: If Einstein Told You What This is About, He’d Have to Use Math

When Albert Einstein spent his summer vacation on the North Fork in 1939, he befriended, among others, David Rothman, the owner of Rothman’s Department Store in Southold. One day, Rothman asked Einstein if he could explain the Theory of Relativity to him. Einstein said he could. Rothman asked if he could do so without resorting to mathematical equations and Einstein said he could but it would depend on how much education Rothman had.

“I am a high school graduate,” Rothman told him.

“As long as it’s no more than that,” Einstein replied.

Rothman kept a diary of his encounters with Einstein and for this particular day he reported that Einstein started off slow and easy, which Rothman was able to understand, but then wandered off into some more elaborate explanation which Rothman asked that he repeat but slower. At this point Einstein took out a paper and pencil and began making drawings and writing equations and Rothman stopped him.

“No mathematics,” he said.

“You’re right,” Einstein said, putting away the pencil and paper. “Well, I can’t do it.” And that was that.

With this in mind, I would like to explain to you an important advance in science which took place almost simultaneously in the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Batavia, Illinois, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN just outside Geneva, Switzerland. An article about this appeared in the March 7 edition of The New York Times on page A5. It is a very important development.

Apparently, scientists are now very close to being able to see the Higgs boson. Dennis Overbye, who wrote this story, starts out the article with this very exciting news.

“After 40 years…the end of the biggest manhunt in the history of physics might finally be in sight,” he writes.

Here’s how important the Higgs boson is. The presently constructed theory of everything, called the Standard Model, fully explains how three of the four fundamental forces in the universe work, but only if there is an observable thing called a Higgs boson. It’s an actual particle, very small, they say, small enough to be observed if it were to exist. But nobody has been able to find one to look at for 40 years.

Is it there? If it is, physics moves forward. If it isn’t, then it’s back to square one and the physicists will have to come up with a new model of how the universe works to replace the Standard Model.

Here’s the details behind the news. I explain this to you without the use of formulas or drawings.

The two separate locations are in Bavaria and Geneva, halfway around the world from one another. At both, physicists have observed what they call a “bump” in the data. It’s not quite exactly in the same place in each of these cases and it’s not exactly an observation of the Higgs boson, but it’s close enough because it is an observation of something being intruded upon by what could be the Higgs boson. At the Fermi Tevatron accelerator in Illinois, it has been observed between 115 billion electron volts and 135 billion electron volts. At the CERN collider in Switzerland, just a month later, two groups of scientists, one working on an Atlas and the other a CMS, found their own “bump.” It’s between 124 billion electron volts and 126 electron volts.

For size comparison, the molecule is one trillion electron volts. And the electron is one half a trillion electron volts. So the Higgs boson is really small. And finding it, or at least finding where it might be under something like this in three separate studies in two places around the world certainly does get physicists’ ears perked up.

On the other hand, bumps in data that were believed to have been the Higgs boson have turned up before. There were high hopes. But then they were dashed. It was soon found to only have been a case of false readings. But now three readings like this, halfway around the world? According to the scientists who have gone over the data, the chances of these all being wrong are one in 100.

“This very much smells like the Higgs boson,” Beate Heinemann, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley told the Times reporter.

With more studies now underway at other colliders looking for the telltale bump, it appears that the existence of the Higgs boson will either be confirmed or given up on in October. All they have to do is lift up whatever it is that they believe has the Higgs boson under it, and see.

I have written this account to demonstrate to you that, unlike Einstein, I am able to fully explain to you in simple terms and without resorting to mathematics a new development in the basic concept of physics involving who we are, how we got here and where we are going.

So in this sense, I am no Einstein. And I’m glad of it.

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