Commentary: 'God particle' comes with a steep pricetag

The Kansas City StarJanuary 22, 2012 

Science never was my strong suit. But I do have to confess some interest in the pursuit of what’s popularly called the God particle, much to the dismay of particle physicists who prefer the term Higgs boson.

The subject got recent currency with word that researchers in Switzerland, using the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider to propel more common particles head-on into one another at nearly the speed of light, may have spotted a Higgs or two in the wreckage.

That’s a pretty steep ticket for a 17-mile circular underground magnetic racetrack. But even less expensive collisions — between, say, an SUV and a Lexus — can yield useful information, like who had too much to drink at last night’s party.

The point of the research is that the Higgs sighting, if it can be verified, may provide the long-sought explanation of how our universe and everything in it — ourselves included — gets its mass.

Actually, I’ve long known where mass comes from, in my case at least. I get it from cheeseburgers and chocolate cake.

Just how we Earth inhabitants might make use of the knowledge gained by the search for and possible discovery of the elusive particle is a bit unclear.

An exploration of the cosmos for other inhabitable worlds, or for that matter even the search for Bigfoot if that were successful, would seem to have more useful applications.

Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that the Higgs boson turns out to be like an ever-receding mirage — a notion never susceptible to proof. What if no explanation can be found for why matter has mass?

Does it mean that we and all we know or imagine to be real will simply disappear? Pretty unlikely, I’d say. But then, as I confessed at the outset, that’s the viewpoint of a science ignoramus.

There was a time in the human experience when such notions as powered flight, of men walking on the moon, of light without fire, of a bomb able to incinerate an entire city, or of civilizations lying beyond the uncrossable sea must have seemed absurd.

And physicists surely are as entitled to explore their mysteries as were the explorers and dreamers and inventors of an earlier age.

All the same, $10 billion expended in the effort to divine the truth of what in essence is a mathematical theory is an astonishing sum.

One cannot help wondering what such resources might accomplish if applied to the solving of such real problems as childhood mortality, endless famine and wasting diseases whose effects — far from theoretical — so disfigure life on this planet we all call home.

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