Metaphorless at CERN (Scientists find a Boson, but the “Communist Partycle” comes from Twitter)

There was a little linguistic fun yesterday at the press conference yesterday at CERN, the site of the particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland where physicists yesterday announced they have found a boson like the one Peter Higgs (University of Edinburgh) imagined some fifty years ago as the particle necessary to complete the Standard Model of subatomic particles.

The panel led by CERN director Dr. Rolf Heuer and the leaders of its two teams, Fabiola Gianotti (Atlas) and Joe Incandela (CMS), had an anything-but-silly “silly” question put to them somewhat bashfully by the journalist for Reuters, Chris Wickham. Wickham noted that to tell this “difficult” story journalists have had to turn to metaphor, and he wanted the panelists to share their favourite metaphor for the particle, along with their least favourite.Wickham also invited commentary on the use of the phrase “the god particle” to describe it. “We all know you hate it,” he said, “but it has captured the imagination of the general public.” 

After CEM team leader Joe Incandela spoke of the particle in other ways (“I don’t know if I have metaphors”), CERN director Dr. Rolf Heuer shook his head and said, “I have to tell you, the podium is metaphorless. We can’t give you any. I’m sorry.”

Wickham makes no mention of his metaphor bomb in his report for Reuters. Strictly speaking, the physicists’ reluctance to speak about their work in metaphorical terms isn’t news. But expect philosophers of language, literary theorists, and poets to leap in to assist. (A smart publisher would immediately commission a book of poetry on the Higgs Boson from poets around the world. And even smarter one would have commissioned it months ago.) The BBC has at least published a brief vocabulary under the headline “The Poetry of Subatomic Particles.” And contributors to Twitter are doing their bit. One writer suggests the boson, the binding force that gives other particles mass, ought to be called “the communist partycle.”

Heuer, who looked relieved to put the metaphor question behind him, had better success with the final question posed by a journalist — clearly the youngest in the room — from the “science-loving country” of Japan, who said that while he “shared the dreams” of the scientists, he had to ask about the budget for the work of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), and how the money spent at CERN is justified given other global issues such as combating poverty. Responding with verve to the question (and proving that he does find some metaphors of use), Dr. Heuer spoke of the “virtuous circle” between “fundamental science” and “applied science.” “Fundamental science drives innovation, which drives applied science, which drives innovation, and which drives application, and if you break this virtuous circle, you break something for mankind.”

As the “metaphorless” scientists might now affirm, the arts, humanities, and social sciences are also part of this “virtuous circle,” not only because through them we invent the language to talk about the material world, even the stuff we can’t see, but also because they are the engine of creative conceptualization and the social thinking that must accompany and should shape everything “applied” even as they also help to germinate the “fundamental.”

When pressed by the Japanese journalist as to whether CERN was reaching out to the “emerging economy,” Heuer spoke of their extensive educational outreach, suggesting that it was through such efforts that CERN would indeed play a role in helping to “overcome poverty.”

You can watch the press conference in its entirety here:

In related news . . . .

Across the Web, the ironies of the discovery in relation to funding cuts to the academy worldwide are being noted. It is suggested that Higgs, who is professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, would not, if he were a young professor of physics now, be able to survive the punishing “metrics” for “productivity” designed by University administrators. He would likely be judged too slow at publishing his ideas which — precisely because they were pushing known understanding — had difficulty finding their way past peer-review processes. (The original version of Peter Higgs’s paper on the boson, eventually published in Physics Letters, was purportedly deemed “of no relevance to physics.”) As Fabiola Gianotti, who has beaten the statistical odds against her as a woman to hold one of the top jobs in Science, notes, physics is a lot like art; it involves amongst other things an element of “fantasy,” or a free play of the imagination that takes the thinker beyond what is known to exist into the imagining of the not yet understood to situate us all, as was noted at the press conference yesterday, “at the frontier of understanding.” We could go further and declare that physics, both theoretical and experimental, is art; and in its very inventiveness, or at its most imaginative — that is, where it generates an idea or a concept or a theory that may take decades to unfold in a form that yields a result that can be measured — it is vulnerable, so vulnerable, in fact, it may not receive the support it requires to generate its goods.

The activity at CERN is breathlessly collaborative, and breathlessly creative, and we need to find ways to talk about what’s taking place there in ways that bind its creativity to the creativity of the arts, humanities, and social sciences so that they are all mutually supportive. There is a reason why the traditional core of the university, the Faculties of Arts and Sciences, are often housed in a single faculty. These are the faculties where the most “fundamental” research is work of the imagination — work that is at its most powerful when it is free from the restraint of any measure of productivity. As Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek (Herman Feshbach Professor Physics at MIT) put it in a documentary for BBC Horizons aired in March, “A lot of what I do is really just play — I play with the equations, and ideas.” 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could generate a critical verbal mass around the work at CERN to defend the work of the imagination across the Arts and Sciences to increase our global investment in them? And wonderful if we had a government that wanted to define Canada as not just a “science-loving country,” but one that is “arts-loving” too? In its current devastation of the sciences (which it is devastating so that it will be free to continue to devastate the environment), Harper’s administration is pitting Canada against the collaborative and creative forces worldwide that would use the imagination and specialized forms of play to make the planet a healthy, poverty-free, generative place.

* * * * * * *

The beautifully-shot BBC Horizons documentary in which Wilczek appears, along with Michio Kaku (CUNY), James Gates (U of Maryland), Jon Butterworth and Adam Davison (University College London), is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4-wVzjnQRI.

The Edmonton Journal notes that three scientists at the University of Alberta, James Pinfold, Doug Gingrich, and Roger Moore, had a “hand” in the work at CERN. As Heuer noted yesterday, the work has involved intense, worldwide collaboration from the designing of the accelerator to the analysis of its data.

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