Higgs boson and the loss of our collective compass
- Alex Eliseev
- 10 Jul 2012 01:18 (South Africa)
In the stream of columns below, you’ll find Sipho Hlongwane’s angry words about President Jacob Zuma’s penis, and our seeming inability to escape this heated debate.
“I cannot for the life of me understand why we’re supposed to have deeply held, passionate opinions about Zuma’s penis,” he fumes. “I really don’t. And frankly, I’ve had it.”
I can almost imagine Hlongwane’s eye twitching. It’s a feeling I know all too well… just read my thoughts on Leigh Matthews’ killer Donovan Moodley or Humphrey “Am I such a bad MEC that I can’t have a painting?” Mmemezi, and you’ll know that I’ve done my share of fuming in the past.
But energy – especially angry energy – is a powerful force, and to waste it would be a shame. So I thought I’d redirect it and offer an alternative issue South Africans can focus on: the Higgs boson.
I was thinking about the so-called “God particle” (apologies to scientists) this weekend, when my wife pointed out an advert in one of the Sunday newspapers. It was an ad from the publishers or distributors of the saucy soft porn – pardon me, erotic – novel Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, it was more of an apology, saying that demand for the book had been so great that there simply wasn’t enough stock for all those who were still virgins to the story.
Somehow, this got me thinking about the infinite universe and how strange and mysterious it can be. How is it, I wondered, that bookstores are running out of this F-grade novel, while perhaps the greatest scientific discovery of our lifetime is slipping past unnoticed?
How is it that a revelation that could unravel the laws of nature and change the entire world is making such a small ripple?
The day after the possible discovery of the Higgs boson was announced, only one local newspaper led with the story. The others reflected it, sure, but just a few days later I was forced to scratch around for it in the weekend press.
One of the leads that weekend was about a South African man who snuck onto a property in Portugal, scanned the earth and found what may or may not be a grave that may or may not contain bones, which may or may not belong to Maddie McCann (who vanished five years ago).
To put this into context: if the particle discovered at the Large Hadron Collider turns out to be the Higgs boson (and scientists are pretty sure it will) then it could – just maybe – lead to something as significant as science’s much earlier realisation that the earth was not flat but round.
This particle, once reproduced and studied, could unlock the secrets of mass, gravity, dark matter, dark energy and who knows what else. If we currently know what makes up about 4% of the universe, this could be our way to start studying and understanding the rest.
If you need more analogies (and I have plenty) this is a light being turned on in a completely new part of a gigantic house, or the ability to see what we have never been able to see before. The new particle is literally changing the very foundation of the standard model of physics.
Think of any object or tool around you – a phone, a computer, your GPS device, Wi-Fi, the Internet you’re using to read this – and chances are a scientific discovery made it possible.
As professor of physics at the University of Johannesburg, Simon Connell, explains, a cellphone would be little more than sand, stone and oil were it not for scientists who discovered how to fuse it all together.
“As we push our understanding of science back to something more fundamental, we get technology that benefits humankind,” he says.
In other words, were it not for these kinds of discoveries, we may all still be cavemen, running around and grunting.
For the record, I don’t for one second claim to understand the full complexity of the latest discovery. I chose to study creative writing over science. But I do understand that humanity lunges forward through the work of scientists, whether they are staring up into the stars or smashing protons at the speed of light.
I may struggle to conceptualise how the Higgs field “switched on” a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, but the discovery sparked within me a desire to find out more. So I went and watched the concept being explained using Ping-Pong balls, some sugar and an old canteen tray (The Guardian) or Justin Bieber’s head (CNN). I didn’t understand it before, but I do now.
What has always fascinated me was wondering where I – and the people around me – fitted in on the great timeline of existence. Look back at how people lived and what scientists believed several hundred years ago. Now think about what those alive in five centuries' time will think of us? Will they remember the great Spear debate, the ANC’s dirty battle for Mangaung or how salacious that one novel was? I doubt it. They will see us either as ignorant fools (compared to them and their knowledge) or as pioneers searching for answers.
We sit with an opportunity to contribute to the human narrative in a most fundamental and incredible way, a chance to discover that which today lies in the realm of science fiction. And that should make us all very excited.
I’ve been a journalist long enough to know what leads a newspaper and know that science is a hard sell. I’m also not saying people should be denied the pleasure of escaping into novels or not having to untangle string theory after a hard day’s work. But I expected last week’s discovery to ignite a flame of curiosity, to set ablaze social networks and to dominate dinner conversations. I hoped to hear at least one: “Bazinga!” I waited in vain for someone to ask me to explain the little bit I knew about the Higgs boson.
I also thought about a soon-to-be-published book on the amazing Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and whether bookstores will have to apologise for underestimating the demand? Doubtful, to be sure.
But most of all, I thought about where our collective compass is pointing and whether we may have lost our way. DM
P.S: If you still don’t care about the Higgs boson, at least laugh at a geeky science joke with me: “Higgs boson walks into a Catholic church. The priest says: "Hey, what are you doing here?" The particle replies: "You can't have mass without me.”
- TB Joshua: When stupidity rules
- When it comes to policing, accountability is what matters
- Op-Ed: Everybody, CALM DOWN!
- Joshua Broomberg, a schoolboy defending our most fundamental right
- The Accusation Game 2.0: Prince Mokotedi vs NPA
- With Prince Mokotedi's departure from NPA, many questions will remain unanswered
- Popcorn ballet: Easy to digest, delicious to swallow
- We are but dandelions against the wind
- Madonsela, the Defence Review, and SA’s cries for leadership
- On the Nkandla campaign trail: The ANC’s continuing mission down Denial Avenue
- The ANC's Judgement Day gone wrong
- As Oscar looms, Ketani DNA expert gives his verdict on SA justice system
- A cold case, a sizzling battle: Betty Ketani murder trial, week one
- His name is Louca, and he could be a game-changer
- Analysis: Bonfires of discontent, in horrifying numbers
- Limpopo's fierytale: the people vs. the police, Armageddon style
- Joburg's latest mystery: A rocket-head of possibilities
- Analysis: e-tolls' first act of sabotage, a sign of deep discontent
- Analysis: Never forget Jan Rivombo
- Nkandla government report: Controlling the (scandal) creep
- Wanted: A time machine. Mission: Re-do Nelson Mandela memorial
- Nkandla leak: one step closer to the truth
- Jo'burg Ballet: A gorgeous 'The Nutcracker'; an antidote to e-tolls and Krejcir
- Police vs. Krejcir: Could this be the final battle?
- Blue Light Brigade: The president’s bullies assault journalist
- McBride as head of Ipid? WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
- Crime intelligence: Ngcobo joins Mdluli on sidelines
- Analysis: Joburg, Gotham City without Batman
- SA schools' safety: Festering scandals, emerging lessons
- Nazir Alli: The man whose bells are e-tolling
- SA government: excellence, unforgiven
- Riah Phiyega’s disaster-filled journey, far from over
- Gemballa case: Key witness' memory U-turn
- Krejcir assassination attempt: The stuff of movies, Bond movies
- The magic of (de)construction: Unveiling the biggest losers
- Goodman Nono and the darkness of our system's soul
- Away from the squabbling family, graciousness and love for Madiba
- The things that Obama can teach us
- A day in the life of a soul-searching country: Will good eventually prevail?
- E-tolls: Final countdown? Or not so... final... countdown?
- Mvula Trust scandal: Minister Baloyi changes tack
- Mvula trust, minister Baloyi and the basic question of trust
- The Phiyega Problem
- Oscar: The day our newsroom went quiet
- Humphrey Mmemezi: An embodiment of all that Mamphela Ramphele loathes
- Mvula Trust: The inconvenient questions
- Exclusive: Water Affairs Deputy Minister, her friends and the R30-million tender
- Get OUTA here: Sanral's win, everyone else's loss
- That race card ain't no trump card
- Gauteng's e-tolling volcano
- FIVE MINUTES: South Africa, 27 September
- E-tolls: the lawyers slug it out
- Humphrey Mmemezi rides into the sunset, for now
- Higgs boson and the loss of our collective compass
- Death of a (textbook) salesman: Motshekga blames the supplier
- Reporter's notebook: Chaos and pain in Marlboro Gardens
- Ketani murder: ex-wife steps out
- Outa's Wayne Duvenage, out of Avis
- Humphrey Mmemezi: Have you any shame, sir?
- Betty Ketani: A murder less experienced
- Zuma squeezes the oxygen from General Cele's job
- The week we learned to listen. And prepare for new battles.
- Crime: Cold case files, South Johannesburg, chapter 1
- The realpolitik of SKA
- PaintingGate: the Gallery strikes back
- Analysis: Painting debate will test our democracy
- Unchain my art
- Gauteng's Highway to Hell, revisited
- Extra! Extra! Coming soon to a court near you: The Richard Mdluli Show
- Maldonado's triumph unites polarised Venezuela
- Defiance 2.0: Malema's back, alive & kicking
- Nazir Alli: E-tolling scandal's first victim
- That sinking feeling: Khoza 2.0 unleashes a storm of... silence
- Analysis: Which model will the police follow - Marc Ishlove's or Richard Mdluli's?
- E-tolling: Judge Prinsloo and hope for South Africa
- E-tolls: The puppet-masters drop their masks
- E-tolls: Judge's admission of urgency Outa hurt Sanral
- Reporter's notebook: Sanral's raging bronco vs Outa's angry rider
- Chuck Colson, Nixon's 'master of dirty tricks', has left the building
- Analysis: Malema's organised demise
- Lights go off on SA electric car project
- Radovan Krejcir is just a symptom
- E-Tolls: A dogfight on the cards
- A fissioning of poetry with imaginative adventures in humanness
- E-tags: The silence before the storm?
- The Princess of Bergplaas
- The Future Eaters... effectively beyond parody
- Malema suspension: ANCYL chess game continues
- His back to the wall, Malema's down to primal instincts - fight or flight
- SKA goes into referee's optional extra time
- The 'Monster', his men and the twists and turns of the Modimolle trial
- African financial ministers back Nigerian for World Bank job
- ZANEWS: Weekly Digest – S4 Episode 27
- ZANEWS: The Misfortune Teller (Part 2) Feat. The DA Team
- ZANEWS: The Misfortune Teller (Part 1)
- ZANEWS: Old School
- ZANEWS: Show me the Money!
- ZANEWS: Juju in Memoriam
- ZANEWS: Tokyo Adrift
- ZANEWS: Coming To America
- ZANEWS: Touchy-feely Boers
- ZANEWS: Weekly Digest # 25
- ZANEWS: Hail to the Chief
- ZANEWS: The Devil Wears Gaga
- ZANEWS: Lindiwe's African Dream
- ZANEWS: The Constitution and Other Fairytales
- ZANEWS: Star Wars Ep. VII – A No Hope
- ZANEWS: Sex, Drugs & Boerie Roll
- ZANEWS: Juju's in the panic room
- ZANEWS: Amazing Zooma
- ZANEWS: Buns in the oven
- ZANEWS: Eye Spy
- ZANEWS: Sirious?!?
- ZANEWS: Flushed Away?
- ZANEWS Weekly Digest
- ZANEWS: Dubul' ibhunu e Gabbana
- ZANEWS: Life after PDV
- ZANEWS: The Donald is angry
- An advice to a monster
- Ster: Return to Art for the Sake of Art
- Missing. One Maverick writer. Might be in Fifth Dimension.
- The SA economy's Cosatu migraine
- France finally arrive at Rugby World Cup
- Libyan War's forgotten sufferers
- Only 12 years after Dubya, another Texan wants to be president
- The 2010 World Cup: Was it all worth it?
- Analysis: Twitter, a @realpoliticalpowerplayerSA
- SKA's little Mozambican brother, still an embryo
- Lewis Pugh: Frack off, Shell!
- The Square Kilometre Array, a project The Karoo deserves
- Press Council hearings in Cape Town - speaking to empty chairs, again
- The Chinese Sphinx: How China reports on Egypt
- Nightmare at Baragwanath refuses to end
- Reporter's notebook: A most curious vigil
- Justice slowed by toxicology reports is justice denied
- Gauteng's mean streets offer police a reality check
- 'Fela! The Musical' comes to South Africa - well, kinda...
- 63rd Cannes: The Bang Bang Club, the movie - where art doesn't imitate life
- 63rd Cannes: Applause, emotion and Life Above All
- 63rd Cannes: Winnie, the movie, Winnie, the dilemma
- 63rd Cannes: Judging the jurors
- Cannes it all come together?
- ZANews Friday: Thabo Mbeki is the obvious choice for Bafana Bafana
- ZANews: Zuma, De Villiers, and Percy Montgomery's hair
- ZANews: Hellen Zille and national security
- ZANews debuts, politicians Shaik in their boots