Higgs Boson, or What’s the Meta in Metaphor for?


Let’s get God out of the way to start. The Higgs Boson particle/field is not the God particle. (I keep telling everyone – the neutral B-meson is the God particle.) In part because of that name, and, certainly, the momentous confirmation at the largest site of physics experimentation in the world of a near sixty-year-old mathematically theorized element of the Standard Model for explaining the universal forces (whew!), the general public has taken a greater than usual interest in the doings and don’tings of particle physics.

Has come, then, the question from parts far and wide, “Do you really understand what this thing is?”

This, too, is unusual, because generally speaking, when people talk about particle physics at the breakfast table or over their martinis, it is pretty commonly accepted as being not worth the effort to mention that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Why, now, the big deal?

Well, God, I guess.

But let’s, as I say, forget about God. Let’s consider “understanding.” (Not “peace” and “love,” for now – just understanding.) What do we mean by that word?

Among the more read and discussed expressions of mystification over the Higgs Boson have been several by Robert Wright, at his Atlantic blog. The Wall Street Journal even took one of them up as the basis for its own call for humility. Wrote Wright, and the WSJ in citing him,

In sum: I personally continue to have no idea what the Higgs boson is. And I think the physicists who ‘understand’ what it is can do so only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions. For them, apprehending a purely mathematical description of something is tantamount to comprehending it.

Now, again, this normally is not an issue. Have Wright and the rest until now lived contentedly in complete knowledge of what a charmed quark is, but are only now finding themselves fully up against the brick wall of understanding in their attempt to fathom the Higgs Boson? No, and my interest here is not in enlightening anyone about HB, but in challenging a rather dim presentation of what knowledge is, including the usual cheap devaluation of metaphor.

Knowledge – or the word that Wright carelessly uses in its stead, understanding – is not one thing only.  Many thinkers have subdivided it. One fundamental division from the last century, from information science, is known, in ascending profundity, as DIKW: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Some formulations exclude wisdom. Some replace it with – hey! – understanding.

(The exclusion of wisdom sometimes is not casual. Data – as they say about dying and living – is easy; wisdom is hard. Let’s just get rid of it…)

Then there is, from the field of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives, which presents its own hierarchy of ascending degrees of knowledge. In Bloom’s pyramid, as we see, “knowledge” so called is actually the lowest order cognitive skill.

I can say for instance – probably you too – that I “know” the formula for atomic energy. Sure: E=MC2. Ha! But do I – to move to the next level – comprehend it. (There is no question, take my word for it, whether I can bring any applied knowledge – next level up again – to bear on whatever it is I know. I cannot produce atomic energy.) The answer depends on what we mean by “comprehend” and is one of the two points at which I think Wright makes himself dull.

Do I, any more than Wright, and likely you, comprehend the mathematics behind the formula? I do not. To the extent that ultimate reality – the constituent structure of the universe, and the inciting event that caused that structure to arise – is expressible in numbers, only the mathematicians and physicists who have the math comprehend the deepest levels of what we know of it.

If that is what we mean by comprehend…

If we are modern day Pythagoreans, sworn to the mysteries of our secret society and convinced that the universe is really numbers, a numerically encoded Matrix presenting itself in appearance, as astral bodies, frequencies and rays, attractions and repulsions. As if, in analogy, we were to present this

and say that is what a human being is in his or her totality.

There are many scientists who believe so.  Lawrence Kraus, most recently, publically does. To explain the physical origin and workings of the universe, goes this way of thinking, is to explain the universe. All the rest is contingent human creation and, thus, a form of meaning we make only for ourselves, and not, therefore, an integral element of reality contributing to its greater account. That belief is a subject for another day, but such an assertion about reality is an entirely unsupported claim, and not thereby dispositive – no proof one way or the other – and a faith in itself if clung to absent a different kind of humility than the kind of which Wright spoke.

There is manifest and abundant evidence of features to our reality beyond the merely physical. For most of human existence, people have made of those features a sandbox for castle creation, the wonders of an imaginary architecture. That history then leads the more literal, less figurative minded among us to dismiss those elements as mere fancy, or worse. Data does not give them foundation, support their ultimate truth, and we have no reliable standard other than the data. There is, too, no reason other than the mere assertion of God‘s existence and nature to expect the universe to meet our expectations – not even that of the scientists, that the universe is, finally, orderly and mathematically beautiful. God, Einstein famously said, speaking of something other, does not play dice with the universe.

So maybe, contra the Eleusinian mysteries, the parables of Jesus, the visions of Plato and Hegel and the ratiocinations of Kant, not to mention the insights of the Buddha and the ineffable flights of poetry – maybe the real elect among us are, lo, the physicists, and the answer to it all, all our coming and going, a series of mathematical calculations, and that, friends and family, is finally the accounting of what we can call wisdom in the world.

Could be.

And all the rest merely the most enduring matinee, with a late, late curtain, any of us could ever have imagined.

Or maybe, let us consider, metaphor is not just a curlicue of the imagination, a rhetorical ornament of language, a human trill between data points. That is the common derogation. Affirming to a non-literary colleague not long ago my general antipathy for political poetry – because of its usual attachment to the politics in negligence of the poetry – my untutored fellow understood me to lament a lack of metaphor. She thought I meant that political poetry is not pretty enough, and metaphor is a ball gown for a literary coronation. That is what most people think who are not readers, or only passingly so, of poetry and literary prose.

What, though, if unlike Wright, we did not believe of physicists that, along with the math, they can understand Higgs Boson

only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions.

I rather do not think that most people believe that “to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind.” Most people, I think, believe what Wright seems to – that metaphor constitutes in varying degrees (depending on how clear or breakable is the figure of speech) some rude pretense of understanding. A fake kind of knowledge. “I mean, sure, I understand the words, sentence by sentence …” says Wright. But he still doesn’t get it, he says.

As long as we think of metaphor as a colored glass through which to see reality prettily and differently from what it really is, we limit what metaphor can be, which is itself another way of knowing. It is true that metaphor can be no more than just that filigree to place around an object. It can be bad, often is. There is lots of mistaken math, too, and high flying scientific theory that does not pan out. The bad does not obviate the good. What, though, of thinking about metaphor as a pick that cracks open the object and reveals it? What if it is a Buddhist koan intended first to confound, a Zen master’s slap to the face meant to startle? That is, for instance, what catachresis is – a jarring, paradoxical, even senseless metaphor, an unknown meteor crashing out of your head instead of the gentle rain of an oft-told tale on your noggin, lulling you to sleep.

Wright offers in another post,

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.

Here he seems purposely to be boxing himself in. He cannot conceive anything other than the way it already is in the world? He has never seen a double exposure in a photo, a dissolve and superimposition in a film? He cannot imagine the sub-atomic level (come on, Bob, be that microscopic eye zooming in) at which it is revealed that matter is mostly empty space? Cannot pretend, then, the particles of each thing might occupy the empty space of the other? Never listened to a Firesign Theater recording? (How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All.)

He never lived in contradiction, with what Keats called negative capability?

Mere metaphor is a one-trick pony, a blind man holding an elephant’s trunk. The best metaphor, metaphor that enlightens, does not simply offer observation of the world; it puts us in relationship to it, and no account of reality that does not include us and our consciousness of the world, of our being in it and in relation to it, is remotely complete.

The map is not the territory.




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