Higgs Boson Continues to Not Make Sense

Shortly after the existence of the Higgs boson was quasi-confirmed, I wrote a short post noting, among other things, that I don't really understand what a Higgs boson is. This upset such commenters as Brad Watts, who wrote, "If you have no idea what the subject is about, then you shouldn't be writing about it."

Happily, the commenter known as ugluk2 (apparently 'ugluk1' was already taken) leapt to my defense:

Wright actually gave the standard explanation that is handed to us laymen when physicists or science writers try to explain what the Higgs boson is. Wright just had the honesty to admit he doesn't really understand it and speculates that physicists themselves only understand it on a mathematical level. Which is more or less what Richard Feynman said about quantum mechanics.

Exactly , ugluk2. Feynman (who won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum physics) made that point in his great little book The Character of Physical Law. And if I recall correctly, he literally said that nobody--including him--really understands quantum physics. Because once you get very far down into the subatomic world, the reality implied by the math just isn't amenable to intuitive comprehension. Which was exactly and explicitly the point of my post.

My Atlantic colleague Garance Franke-Ruta, undaunted by the likes of me and Feynmann, has heroically assembled a state-of-the art layperson's description of what the Higgs boson is. When I saw the headline--"Still Confused About the Higgs Boson? Read This"--I was seized by alarm. I figured that if I read her piece and was no longer confused, I would have to retract my profession of ignorance and abashedly concede comprehension. It is with relief and delight that I now report that I have read her piece and still don't get it.

I mean, sure, I understand the words, sentence by sentence--just as I understood the words, sentence by sentence, that Feynman himself used to describe quantum physics. But, as Feynman emphasized, sometimes the nature of a physical phenomenon makes it impossible for words to leave you with a clear and coherent picture in mind.

For example, Garance writes that bosons are a special kind of particle: two of them can inhabit the same space at the same time. Now, that by itself just doesn't make intuitive sense. We don't think of two rocks as being able to inhabit the same space--or two pebbles or two grains of sand. Garance acknowledges the problem and suggests we think of bosons not as particles but as "entities". Sorry--doesn't help. To the extent that I can envision something as generic as an "entity" at all, I think of it as a "thing"--and in my intuitive universe two "things" can't inhabit the same space.

Garance anticipates my difficulty. She writes, "Bosons have the capacity to share space because they are more like a force than a thing in the way we normally think of 'things' or 'particles.' "

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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