Boredom: symmetry, god and x-factor

Also at The Guardian.

I gather that my last post wasn’t very popular- I emailed it to my mother and she emailed me back with a story about Benedict Cumberbatch (it was a good one) and thanks for the advent calendar I sent to her cat.

This one will be worse. It is about Symmetry.

The preparation for the seminar I gave today involved 3.5 hours of ensuring that the font was acceptable and one hour reading  Peter Kosso: ‘the epistemology of broken symmetries’. I keep coming back to this paper, because I don’t really understand why I believe in the Higgs mechanism. And I do. I’ve got money on it. Well, It’s an each-way bet.

Why have we put so much faith in the standard model and the Higgs mechanism? There is loads of evidence in its favor, but there are also enormous problems. They hit you in the stomach. As scientists we have no choice but to make our work evidence-based: take the information we have, build a model of the world from it, and then continue. And then adjust, and continue. I wish we could think harder and I wish more people were involved, and I wish that sitting and thinking about things was given more value relative to that of ‘x-factor’.

The Higgs mechanism is a construction that our minds (actually just a few of them- Higgs and Goldstone and perhaps a couple of others who don’t have a boson named after them) have been able to imagine. A mechanism by which the beautiful, perfect symmetry that lives in our mathematical equations can be reconciled with the lumpy world we live in. If the symmetry of these equations was not broken, and the world was left as it was probably ‘created’, then there would certainly be no life, no stars or planets, no mass at all in fact.

Kosso talks about the symmetry breaking of the Higgs mechanism, and also about the observed symmetry breaking in superconductors, and he asks questions that we physicists don’t, but I think they are important.

He wants to know this: if we can create (out of our imaginations and experiments and maths) a way for this to work; if we can provide the world with a rock-steady explanation of how we get from the maths to the people, then does that establish that the maths is good, that the universe longs for symmetry, or does it merely protect this possibility from immediate scorn. We humans jump on symmetry like we jump on god. Maybe there are hard limits on our intelligence.


About lilyasquith

I am a particle physicist working on sonification of the data output from the ATLAS detector at CERN. The project I'm working on is called LHCsound and is funded by the STFC. It is based at University College London where I have just finished my PhD on the search prospects for a low mass standard model Higgs Boson. I have now moved to Chicago to start an ATLAS postdoc with Argonne National Laboratory.
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