Culture Clash

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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Culture Clash

Eating Poetry (XXXVII) – The New Physics

Al Zolynas

for Fritjof Capra

And so, the closer he looks at things, the farther away they seem. At dinner, after a hard day at the universe, he finds himself slipping through his food.  His own hands wave at him from beyond a mountain of peas.  Stars and planets dance with molecules on his fingertips.  After a hard day with the universe, he tumbles through himself, flies  through  the dream galaxies of his own heart.  In the very presence of his family he feels he is descending through an infinite series of Chinese boxes.

This morning, when he entered the little broom-closet of the electron looking for quarks and neutrinos, it opened into an immense hall, the hall into a plain – the Steppes of Mother Russia! He could see men hauling barges up the river, chanting faintly for their daily bread.  It’s not that he longs for the old Newtonian Days, although something of plain matter and simple gravity might be reassuring, something of the good old equal-but-opposite forces.  And it’s not that he hasn’t learned to balance comfortably on the see-saw of paradox.  It’s what he sees in the eyes of his children –the infinite black holes, the ransomed light at the center.

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Culture Clash

The Real “God” Particle

I hate trooping off in a gang.

Scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN believe they have confirmed the existence of what others have called the “God particle.”

Everyone exclaims “Higgs boson!”

But I cry out “neutral B-meson” to that.

I understand that for physicists, this discovery completes and substantiates the “Standard Model,” by which they currently explain the workings of the universe. I understand, too, that physicists reject the “God” nomenclature for endowing the physics with religious meaning. Scientists believe that humans, as their highest calling, are seekers of knowledge. But humans are something else, even more originally and ultimately than such seekers. They are, just so, endowers of meaning.

Gather up all the facts. Arrange them however reason may dictate. There will remain the arrangement itself still to be made sense of, in which to find meaning.  The text of the universe is not simply words on a page, chapter and verse. Or only, that is, perhaps, if you are Clarence Thomas or a certain kind of scientist. There is, among all the words a kind of field, like molasses, in the description the physicists have offered of the Higgs boson, catching the particles that move through it and providing – imbuing, might we say? – their matter with mass. That invisible field amid the words, surrounding and connecting them, is meaning, there all along, but only real when we see it – like a flashing occurrence of 125 electron volts, the weight of the Higss – delivering its own kind of mass to our lives, to existence. The universe of facts – our descriptions of reality – are like the words of that universal text. There is still the meaning to made of them.

So while the Higgs boson gives the mass to matter, from whence, however soupy and chaotic, the matter? Read, then, the story, as I told it over two years ago, of the neutral B-meson, my own designated, if I may imbue so bold, “God” particle.

Once upon a time in an intellectual land far, far away, philosophy concerned itself, among other matters, with questions such as the nature of meaning in life, how to live in the absence or presence of God, and why there is something rather than nothing. A great existential cartoon, which still hung on a bulletin board of the philosophy department at Hunter College in New York City in the early 1980s, had one philosopher inquiring of another whether he was referring to “nothing as nothing or nothing as something.” The joke gives good indication of why philosophy doesn’t concern itself with such questions any longer. Now they reside in the country of philosophy-with-a non-professional-“p,” as in everybody’s got one: what’s yours?

Instead we have truth statements, and science, and the latter is far more exciting. The New York Times reports that physicists at Fermilab (as of last year only the second largest particle accelerator in the world, after the recently operational Large Hadron Collider near Geneva) may be on track to answer why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe – which is to say, how it is that we even exist, rather than not exist.

In a mathematically perfect universe, we would be less than dead; we would never have existed. According to the basic precepts of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang and then immediately annihilated each other in a blaze of lethal energy, leaving a big fat goose egg with which to make stars, galaxies and us.

But this is not so. (Right?) And physicists (and, frankly, I) want to know why. It was Russian human rights hero and physicist Andrei Sakharov who first theorized how it could be that matter might predominate over antimatter.

As it turns out, collisions of protons and antiprotons in Fermilab’s Tevatronaccelerator produce pairs of subatomic muons slightly more often than they do antimuons. “So the miniature universe inside the accelerator went from being neutral to being about 1 percent more matter than antimatter.” The Times goes on to say – and this is where it really gets interesting –

The new effect hinges on the behavior of particularly strange particles called neutral B-mesons, which are famous for not being able to make up their minds. They oscillate back and forth trillions of times a second between their regular state and their antimatter state. As it happens, the mesons, created in the proton-antiproton collisions, seem to go from their antimatter state to their matter state more rapidly than they go the other way around, leading to an eventual preponderance of matter over antimatter of about 1 percent, when they decay to muons.

They oscillate back and forth – trillions of times a second – unable “to make up their minds.”

A metaphor. In particle physics. In fact, scientists, and science writers, use metaphor all the time. But is it mere metaphor? Well, metaphor is only “mere” to those who merely look at the window that metaphor provides on the world, rather than through the metaphorical window. Trillions of times a second, for reasons researchers have yet to discover, this “strange particle” vacillates between yes and no, between thesis and antithesis – and the nothing that is neither in equal balance. Commonly, it has been the hypothetical Higgs boson particle to which scientists have referred as the “God particle,” for reasons you can read about here.

But in the neutral B-meson, it appears, we have existence – something (as in why is there?) – in the balance. “God,” as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did not say first, “is in the details.” At the Big Bang instant of creation, God or what passes for it, infinitely compacted and massive, like a great in and intro-verted Bodhisattva contemplating its contemplation, verges on the edge of creation: to matter or not to matter. To be or not to be. Back, forth, back, forth in its contemplative, inertial mass.

And one percent more often than not, the Big Bang Bodhisattva pauses on “to be.” And we exist.

We barely got out alive.

Thank God.


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