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The biggest news of the week, in this universe or any other, was that scientists think they may have found the elusive particle that gives other particles their mass, their heft, their ability to slow down and smell the roses.

Let’s explore this fascinating subject by using the trusty question and answer format:

What is this subatomic particle called?

The Higgs boson. It was named for Peter Higgs, the scientist who suggested the existence of a particle that somehow attracts other particles into clusters, so that instead of racing around the universe by their lonesome, they acquire mass, forming stars, planets, cellphones, etc.

What’s a boson?

Boson is a botched rendering of bosun (Higgs was a killer scientist but a lousy speller), which itself is an alternate spelling of boatswain, the petty officer in charge of a ship’s deck. When a bosun blows his whistle, all hands gather around him.

Isn’t there another, popular name for the wee little thing?

Yes. It is often called the God particle. The name was suggested by a colleague of Higgs who, after hearing a two-hour explanation of his theory, said, “What in God’s name are you talking about?”

Do you have your own name for the Higgs boson?

As a matter of fact I do. I call it the obesity mote. If not for it, all the other particles would have gone on jogging and not gaining weight forever. Along came the obesity mote and conglomerations of particles that once needed no sustenance eventually were consuming supersized meals washed down by barrels of sweetened drinks.

How does the Higgs boson actually cause other particles to gain mass?

As far as I can tell, scientists aren’t even prepared to speculate about that yet. It is rather like the marriage of Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. The phenomenon itself is confirmable, but the explanation for it lies beyond the bounds of contemporary understanding of nature’s laws.

The Higgs boson is short-lived, isn’t it?

Oh, yes. Higgs said his namesake has a lifespan of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second. Compared to the Higgs boson, the mosquito is a veritable Methuselah.

Under the circumstances, isn’t “life-span” a pretty comical concept?

I suppose, but consider the Big Bang. Scientists say all matter expanded from an infinitely dense, impossibly tiny bubble into our universe in a fraction of a second.

Why do you say “our universe”?

Because scientists now speak of “our” Big Bang as well. A theory that is growing in acceptance postulates that big bangs occur regularly and eternally, and that we live in a “multiverse” of which our own universe is but a small part.

And you believe this?

Luckily, I don’t have to. Scientists will continue to try to understand it regardless of what I think. I think. Also, we are still allowed to believe what we want. In 1600, the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for publicizing his view that the universe consisted of countless populated planets.

How does the Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border fit into the Higgs boson discovery?

Scientists there detected the presence of the particle, though they only would go so far as say it was a “particle consistent with the Higgs boson.” It’s sort of like journalists describing a police lineup. We say the witness identified the alleged miscreant, not the actual miscreant.

Did you learn anything in your Catholic school days that has a bearing on this subject?

Yes, I remember a nun once telling us to imagine a solid iron sphere the size of Earth. If a dove flew past it every 10,000 years, rubbing the iron ball with its wings, when the sphere had been worn to nothing, that would be the beginning of eternity. Since then, no concept has absolutely floored me.

What would that nun have done with a Higgs boson?

Probably she would have whacked his backside with a very, very tiny ruler.



I cover the city of Billings.