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Beauty, simplicity, and symmetry

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Flickr.
The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Flickr.

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN. Photo via Flickr.

If Einstein’s theory of relativity is wrong, then this whole thing we call the universe is either a dream or it works a lot differently than we suspected. So far, all the pieces of the theory have fallen into place, with good evidence to support them. All except one.

We’ve been hearing about it for a while, the so-called “God particle” that gives all other particles, and thus everything else imaginable, mass. Still, we’ve never actually seen it. That’s because it’s not really seeable. It can only be viewed indirectly, as if looking at yourself in a mirror through another mirror.

Around this time last year, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland revealed data suggesting they might be seeing something that looked like something that could have come from the Higgs boson (that’s the “God particle’s” official name). We started seeing headlines like “Maybe Higgs: What the LHC Might or Might Not Have Seen.”

Rumors of its existence had been coming up for a while. So when new headlines emerged earlier this month saying things like “Physicists Increasingly Confident They’ve Found the Higgs Boson” and “Higgs Boson Positively Identified,” I didn’t get too excited. I’m not a particle physicist, so the difference between “maybe Higgs” and “increasing confidence” in the Higgs means little to me.
But one thing I do know, from talking to Northeastern physics professors like Emanuela Barberis and Darien Wood, the more data we study and the more evidence of the Higgs, the closer we get to understanding our universe.

And this is where I get to the real point of this blog post. I debated up above using the term “God particle” because it’s not really in good favor. A lot of physicists don’t like it because, well, it’s not at all correct. The Higgs isn’t as simple as the term implies. But after I watched the following TEDx talk from Northeastern professor Toyoko Orimoto, I realized there’s something else about the Higgs that does in fact jive with the term. And that’s simply its beauty.

Physicists want to understand why particles have mass, she says. “Of course, we could say that they just do….but we physicists don’t find that satisfying. We don’t find that beautiful.”

In her lecture, Orimoto shows how science is quite a bit like art, even when its discoveries are as minute as turning “maybe” into “increasingly confident.” Like art she says, science is useful because it expands our minds and imaginations. The same way a beautiful painting serves the world, so to can a beautiful discovery. I’ll let Orimoto take it from here: