What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and…particle physics?

Dispatches from boffin central.

Yes, folks, I’m here in what may well be one of the brainiest places on Earth, at CERN, Geneva’s famous particle physics research station. It’s much like a university campus that happens to have the largest machine ever built buried 100m below it.
The Large Hadron Collider is what we’re here to see – 27km of particle accelerator, designed to smash together protons with energies not seen since the Big Bang. (note to fundamentalists and other idiots; if you don’t want to see the results for tonight’s ‘how did the universe come about?’ question, look away now…)
As you may know, the reason for all this rough treatment of largely blameless particles is the quest for the Higgs boson. Much of today has been spent in an attempt to explain to me and to the lovely boys and girls on my trip why the physics community as a whole has such an almighty broom handle for said sub-atomic particle.
I’m guessing that nobody who reads my blog (notice that I’ve avoided use of the phrase ‘no one in their right mind’ in reference to readers of my blog) is in the mood for anything like a formal physics lesson. Good job, as I don’t remember ever giving anything like one. However, here’s my attempt to put the quest for the Higgs Bassoon onto a bumper sticker:
We’re all taught at school that matter consists of atoms, which in turn are made from protons, neutrons and electrons. These are lovely for helping to make a lot of chemical reactions make sense but fall down rather badly when it comes to some of the questions faced by modern physics.
Many, many brainy people have gone to great lengths to explain some of those questions, such as what are we made of? How did we come about? What’s going to happen to us?
On a fundamental level, it turns out that what we’re made of can be broken down into bits smaller than atoms but that as we learn more about these sub atomic particles, more questions than answers are revealed. One of the major questions is ‘why do particles (and, by extension, anything) have mass when, upon close examination, they appear to be made of bugger all?
The particle that may hold the answers was proposed as a theory by Peter Higgs. If it can be found then it can only be found by this incredibly high-energy collision of particles. In a day of fairly intensive instruction in particle physics I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the likelihood of it being found any time soon. There are a couple of things, however, that can be observed at CERN without the need for hideously expensive laboratory equipment.
One is that the quest for the ‘God particle’ (misleading sobriquet, anyone?) is causing much less in the way of bloodshed than the quest for God. Here there may be disagreements about the science but they are contested through animated, passionate discussion and carefully manipulated mathematics, not diatribe and explosives on buses.
If anything, the quest for the God particle has brought together black and white, old and young, Arab and Jew in a mutual love of learning. Let me strain a metaphor (as I’m wont to do) and suggest that if there is a ‘higher purpose’, something to set us apart from apes and those pigs that scientists have taught to play video games then it is the love of learning, even if it may turn out to be learning for its own sake. Nowhere is that more evident than here. I’m not much for temples on the whole but if anything here is holy, it is learning and that is exactly what squabbling over religion isn’t. That’s insistence on dogma and the blind refusal to learn.
Something else that I’ve learned is that physics is even weirder and more fascinating than even I thought and when it’s well explained, even a mind as tired, battered, abused and underpowered as mine can start to get an insight into the work that has shaped our understanding of the cosmos.
What’s terrific here is that I’ve been talking, face to face with people who are leaders in the field of particle physics and they are not in the least dogmatic. They’re looking for the Higgs boson but they’re just as excited about the prospect of being wrong, of not finding it and of having to tear up the rules of physics and start again.
If only we could take the same approach with our politics. Our spiritual beliefs. Our communities and families. Look, listen, experiment – be willing to start over.

I’ve also been privileged to share this trip with a group of teachers who fill me with hope for the future of education in the UK. They are willing to listen and learn, to tear up the rule book. To realise that sometimes there is little more important than laughing until your sides hurt with new friends.

If you get the chance, visit CERN. Read a little quantum physics. It may make your brain hurt but what doesn’t kill your spirit can only make it stronger.

Neil out.

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