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Higgs boson and the loss of our collective compass

Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them.

After a week of trying to spark massive excitement about the (almost certain) discovery of the elusive Higgs boson particle, I am almost ready to throw in the towel. But not before I have this one last rant.

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.” 


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