Go, Higgs! Block That Boson!

July 30, 2012

When I was a boy, there were just 16 teams in major league baseball, and here's all you had to know about the atom: If you split it, it blows stuff up. Today there is much more to keep track of. In the All-Star Game, I saw more unfamiliar faces than there used to be on the bench of the St. Louis Browns. And the atom? Science is agog over a subatomic phenom: the Higgs boson.

PHYSICISTS FIND ELUSIVE PARTICLE SEEN AS KEY TO UNIVERSE, said the headline in The New York Times. Oh, yeah? If the Higgs boson is all that essential, then an ordinary person should be able to understand its relevance to sports.

When the Higgs boson's apparent confirmation was announced, one physicist said he was glad to be at a physics meeting "where there is applause, like a football game." In fact, judging by the front-page photo, physicists seemed to be indulging in some mild arm-waving and whooping. As well they might, given that the Higgs boson is believed to essentially answer the question, Why do we have existence? The Higgs boson had been doing this for half a century, but only theoretically, like Bryce Harper since high school. Now both Bryce and Higgsie have arrived.

You know how people will propel a proton through a 17-mile circular tunnel near Geneva called the Large Hadron Collider, at virtually the speed of light, so that the proton will collide with another proton coming equally lickety-split from the other direction? Well, after several hundreds of trillions of these collisions, a couple of these protons have been seen to shoot off an almost instantly vanishing scintilla that can be identified, with certainty at a level of 3.5 million to one, as a veritable Higgs boson. Without which there would be no material world.

Science writer Robert Wright is usually excellent at clarifying things like this for general readers, but on the Web he confesses, "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 come up with a metaphorical handle on things. Subatomic physics is like fantasy baseball: It's all numbers. We can't call it fantasy physics, because there is that 17-mile tunnel, but physics today does appear, to the casual observer, to be no more physical than an imaginary lineup of Wins Against Replacement.

We can't see, smell, taste or feel a Higgs boson. Yet physicists say it comes into play on a field. On the Guardian website, science writer Ian Sample attempts to give substance to this by putting Ping-Pong balls on a tray and shaking it. The balls fly merrily around in all directions. Then he covers the tray with sugar. The balls roll around more slowly. The sugar grains are bosons. The balls have acquired mass.

Elusive particle may have caused us to picture the Higgs boson as a knuckleball. On the contrary, it enables us to make contact. Otherwise, reports the Times, "all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight." There's an image for you—without the Higgs boson, we'd be like certain infielders. But that's like saying, without oxygen there would be no such thing as the infield fly rule. To be sure, we couldn't field grounders without the Higgs boson, but then we wouldn't have any hands for grounders to flow through. Nor would there be any ball, nor any ground, nor any us.

So sports can't continue blithely along as if there were no Higgs boson. At The Daily Beast, James Gleick is quoted as having written that if it weren't for Newtonian physics, we couldn't say a sports team has momentum. To this someone appends, "Wait a few generations, and sports commentators will be making similar analogies for the Higgs."

But who's got a few generations? By then, protons may be the new wide receivers. I say we come to grips with the Higgs boson now. Ah, to grips! Are not Higgs bosons like tacklers glomming onto running backs? So wouldn't tacklers want more boson density, and running backs want less? A specter arises: boson manipulation. Will athletes find ways to buff up their Higgs? Might not a hitter—theoretically—squeeze more bosons into his bat?

You know who may have been into boson-field compression way before his time? Mike (Pinky) Higgins, a pretty good hitter for the Athletics, Red Sox and Tigers in the 1930s and '40s. According to a former teammate, Charlie Metro, Pinky "was one of those guys who hammered down the hitting part of the barrel of the bat to a flat surface. You never saw such sinking line drives."

Why does Pinky come to mind? Because Higgs boson makes me think, Pinky Higgins's Bosox—Pinky having gone on to become the team's manager and then general manager. Pinky, by all accounts, drank. One of his players, Bill Monbouquette, recalls getting into a fistfight with him in a hotel lobby and later having to help disentangle Pinky from the hotel's revolving door.

I don't know. I've done what I can here. Maybe, just maybe, the Large Hadron Collider is the new revolving door.

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