“So What’s All This Higgs Boson Stuff About?”

I’m sorry, I’m really not the best person to ask.

It’s not that I don’t understand the physics better than the average layperson.  No, that would be a lie.  But sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I understand what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read.  I probably have a little better understanding of the basic physics behind a lot of things.  But, really, particle physics is not my area of expertise, and I’d worry about misinforming you.

I can tell you that the term “god particle” is misleading.  In fact, it was originally a joke, something that got changed by the publishers to sound more meaningful that it was probably intended.  I can tell you about naming things in physics.  Seriously, it seems like sometimes, 75% of laboratory work is swearing at the problem until it decides to behave.  Or at least until the swearing makes you feel better.  The other 25% often involves a mop.  But maybe that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing about experimental physics:  We don’t all sit in ivory towers and think about abstract physics concepts all day.  Maybe some theoretical physicists do that.  But the people doing the experiments don’t do all that much physics on any given day.  We fix leaks (vacuum, water, oil, etc.) and electronics.  We fight with vendors and wait expectantly for equipment to be delivered.  We might occasionally get to build or fix a really cool piece of lab equipment, like a laser.  But taking data?  Doing “physics?”  That’s astrological alignment territory.  And if even if we are running things and taking data, a lot of it might be a calibration or something that won’t lead to a major breakthrough, even on the scale of our particular specialty (something that will interest perhaps five people outside our lab, and one of those is a particularly doting parent).

So if you have a special someone in your life, someone who is a dear friend or relative, who happens to have more advanced physics knowledge than the average person, go ahead and ask “Hey, do you know anything about the Higgs boson?”  But don’t expect an in-depth lesson on the building blocks of particle physics and the standard model.  Heck, I have colleagues who think finding the Higgs is kind of boring, because it proves something, and it’s more fun to disprove things.  Perhaps expect a lot of discussion about statistics and sigmas.

But if you are a barista, or a telemarketer, or, well, any casually-encountered person, and the person with whom you are casually encountering mentions a career in physics, you should probably keep your questions about the latest popular science news to yourself.

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