It’s fun to watch television news attempting to report on the Higgs boson. Never has there been such an important story that so entirely lacks, well, a story.
News is narrative, for we are narrative animals. While others can understand – or misconstrue – cause and effect to some extent, only we¹ can tell each other about it. “This thing happened because this other thing happened.” It’s what human culture – indeed, our very mental machinery – is built around. Everything we do is shaped into narrative. Look at mathematics. There is nothing innately narrative about mathematics, it concerns things that never change at all. Yet a mathematical proof is a sort of story.
And that is in some ways misleading, because though one can deduce from something being true that another thing must also be, that doesn’t mean the first thing caused the second. The narrative drive can be distorting. Whenever we find a correlation between two things, our first assumption is always that one caused the other – even though they may be coincidental, or might both be the result of a third thing. From fairy stories to Jane Austen, all we want to hear about is how one thing causes another, how actions have consequences. If it was just a succession of unconnected incidents it wouldn’t be a story. Except in fact it would, because our minds would fill in connections between the events.
A good narrative is both exciting and enlightening. Exciting, because the best stories concern the biggest disasters. The worse the effects, the more we want to hear about the cause – so that we can avoid it. This is why we seem to like bad news so much. It also explains why we are more interested in news about people who are like us; it’s not so much that we care more about them as feel their disasters are more applicable. What makes a narrative enlightening is when it satisfactorily explains the relationship between cause and effect. “X leads to Z – and here’s why.” The better we understand the relationship, the better we can avoid Z when we see X happening. Or better bring about Z, in those rare cases of good news.
Which is why the Higgs boson fails as a story. Though it seems like it ought to be a great one, about fundamentals of the universe and the greatest depths of human knowledge, it lacks any real excitement because the vast majority of people simply lack any strong response to it at all. It could help complete or overthrow our understanding of physics. Which one of those was the good one again? Nor is it enlightening, because though we are assured by experts that it is important, even they cannot readily explain why.²
So news reports gussy it up; by using the deeply annoying nickname of “God particle”, suggesting that the Higgs is somehow much more important than all others (it’s not, it’s just harder to detect), or by hanging some other more speculative narrative on it. BBC News was guilty of that yesterday, wondering aloud if there might be some connection between the “absence” of the Higgs particle and the strange result found recently at CERN where neutrinos seemed to travel faster than light. What connection? Well none that anyone has actually thought of yet. Just, you know, some connection. (Imagine if they reported politics like that.) If the BBC’s graphics were anything to go by though, it might bring down the edifice of theoretical physics – which they illustrated with CGI Jenga blocks.³ The narrative we’re forced to take from this is that failure to find the Higgs would be some sort of disaster. And that could hardly be further from the truth.
It seems likely that the Higgs particle will be found within the next year. Physicists will be pleased if the ideas they most agree about are shown to be right, and will be glad to have a precise mass for the particle as that will help decide which version of the theory is best. But if they don’t find it, they’ll like that even more. Because it would mean they had something wrong – and that’s really much more interesting than being right.
- And possibly bees.
- Why does mass even need a particle? We think of mass as something an object just innately has, like length. There’s no length particle.
- Such an ‘edifice” in itself is a wholly wrong narrative about how physics works, suggesting that each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being completely right. In fact, each new stage is built on the foundation of the previous discovery being a little wrong.
- A Tantalizing Hint of the Higgs (spectrum.ieee.org)
- Eight reasons to care about the hunt for the Higgs boson particle (news.nationalpost.com)
- CERN Reports ‘Hints’ of Higgs Boson – But No Discovery Yet (forbes.com)