Alison McQueen


The Appliance of Science

I am fascinated by science. I don’t understand most of it, but I find it fascinating nevertheless. I try to understand it, really I do. I watch lectures on TED, I read books that I can barely follow (try getting through Chaos and making it to the end without a headache). At the time that I’m reading or watching or listening, I fancy that I am keeping up, that I can follow the thread and, for a glimpse at least, can understand what’s going on. Dark matter is one of my pet subjects, and I’m finally getting the hang of it. String theory is quite fun too, but I wouldn’t attempt it after a couple of glasses of wine.

So Higgs boson it is, for a while, until such time as I can either start to get my brain around what it is and what it actually means, or until I give up the ghost and throw in the towel. I’m prepared to give it a couple of years. It took me a bit more than that to get to grips with dark matter. String theory, I’m still playing with.

Some years ago, about a week before the first time they turned on the large hadron collider at CERN, I found myself in a pub in Oxford one night. It was one of those English summer nights, warm, with everybody spilling outside, drinking beer. It so happened that a couple of the blokes I got chatting to were partical physicists (bear in mind here that it was Oxford), and they were a bit pissed. Moi aussi.

The headlines in the red-tops that week were all about whether or not this collider thing would herald the end of time by opening up a huge black hole into which we would all immediately and unceremoniously disappear. ‘No chance,’ one of the physicists said. ‘It’s a physical impossibility.’ I felt cheered. He then went on to explain why, and, almost an hour later with him drawing diagrams on beer mats, I felt like killing myself.

Now here we are, way down the line, and the headline today trumpets that the Higgs boson does exist. It’s been found, and it’s potentially one of the most important discoveries mankind has ever made. It is the beginning of explanation of where we come from. Where everything comes from. If that’s the case, I really ought to take a look at it, just in case it comes in handy.

So, hearty congratulations to Professor Peter Higgs, a very clever man indeed. I suggest you go and clear a bit of shelf space in anticipation of the Nobel prize which will no doubt be whizzing its way to you soon.

PS: I won’t dilute the excitement by saying that, while they say they’ve discovered it, it might be something else, something that only looks like the Higgs boson. Scientists, eh?