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It's understandable

I'm going to stick my neck out and guess that most of you don't understand what a Higg's boson is. I'll also guess that you realised the immense importance of its discovery only because you read about it being immensely important. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Jul 07, 2012 23:38 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I'm going to stick my neck out and guess that most of you don't understand what a Higg's boson is. I'll also guess that you realised the immense importance of its discovery only because you read about it being immensely important. If the media had informed you of the existence of a gigantic panda in the Cygnus constellation, your reaction would have been more emphatic though - because unlike the Higg's boson, you know what a panda looks like.

For those of us who have registered the fact that 'The God Particle' is a masterful branding gesture in the same league as 'God's own country', we have learnt over the last few days that the Higg's boson is a sub-atomic by-product of a mechanism by which elementary particles get their mass, or why 'stuff' weigh anything. As a scientist once told Ian Sample, the author of Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle: "Imagine a snowfield that goes on forever in all directions. Beams of light move through it as though they have skis on: they zip through the field as if it weren't there. Some particles have snowshoes and make less swift progress. Others go barefoot and are destined to trudge around at a snail's pace. A particle's mass is simply a measure of how much it gets bogged down in the field."

But hang on. What I'm doing now is telling you what I've been reading about the hunt for the Higg's boson that started in earnest and was being reported in the news since 2008. My understanding of and belief in the Higg's boson - and, while I'm at it, in sub-atomic particles, the workings of the human brain, how a credit card works, or the Earth circling the Sun - is based on faith. I don't actually make the effort of checking whether what the scientists tell us is the truth. Even if I wasn't so lazy, I'm not equipped with the requisite skills.

When scientists tell us that nothing can move faster than light, we tend to believe them without demanding data to double-check Einstein's mass-energy equivalence equation, regardless of how cool that sounds. (When scientists last year announced that they had spotted sub-atomic neutrinos that broke the speed of light, we believed them. By March this year, the same lot said that there had been a glitch and neutrinos don't actually move faster than light. We believed them again.)

So what exactly does understanding mean, even when we say we have understood something? I posed this question to Shobhit Mahajan, professor of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi. Forget about us chatting about the Higg's boson at dinner parties trying to show that we could have got into IIT were it not for being pushed into the family business. How does the scientist - as opposed to the layabout layman as well as the religious geek whose notions of knowledge is based on the same tenets as those by which a kid believes in Santa - define understanding?

"Till the coming of quantum mechanics [the physics that governs nature that lies at the sub-atomic level] in the last century, whatever phenomenon one encountered could be, in principle at least, sensed by our senses: apples falling, the sun being eclipsed, water becoming steam. There it was possible to have mental images of the phenomena [which could be made understandable through metaphors to the receptive layperson], in addition to mathematics as a tool for understanding it," says Mahajan.

The 'problem' started with the advent of quantum mechanics which dealt with things that could not be directly sensed by our senses. There, the only tool to understanding was mathematics. So the colourful 'acid trip' images that have been accompanying all those news stories on the Higg's boson all this while have as little to do with the much-feted particle as the film set on which the pivotal dance scene in Disco Dancer was shot has to do with Mithun Chakraborty.

"So, the answer to the question, 'What does one mean when one says that he understands the falling of an apple from a tree?' is," says Mahajan, "that I can write down the equation that governs the apple falling and this equation will be true for all apples and trees and then, with appropriate generalisations, also hold true for the Earth orbiting the Sun."

Mathematics is the language used for constructing 'metaphors' to explain physical phenomena - except that maths does it more accurately and closer to reality than, say, 'snowfield' and 'ski marks'. So till I brush up my maths and figure out what I need to confirm about the Higg's boson - and about the Earth orbiting the Sun - I'll outsource my understanding to smarter folks and just trust them.