The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest had turned to the recent discovery of the ‘God particle’. Miss Postlethwaite, our erudite barmaid, had brought the matter up by mentioning that the papers were saying that now the scientists knew everything there was to know about the universe. “But all this Higgs boson business,” said a Pint of Stout. “What does it all mean for me, eh?”
“It means that if they hadn’t found it, you’d have to do all your school sums all over again,” said a Whisky Sour.
Mr Mulliner shook his head. “Oh no,” he said. “I wouldn’t go that far. Our school sums mostly had to do with the Newtonian world, not the rather bizarre activities that go on at the sub-atomic level. The Higgs Boson—if at all it is the Higgs boson that they have found—explains why we have mass, that is, why a Whisky Sour is a Whisky Sour, and my Scotch and lemon is a Scotch and lemon, and we are not all very tiny particles zipping around randomly at the speed of light.
“That’s what I do sometimes when I’ve had a bit more than I should,” griped a Sherry and Bitters. “Of course, I always have my torchlight with me. Now, just last week…”
“As I was saying,” said Mr Mulliner, cutting in expertly, leaving the Sherry and Bitters stranded on a dark night in the past, “My nephew Abelard, who is a member of the CERN project, was telling me that even Professor Higgs, who postulated the existence of this particle 48 years ago, admitted the other day at Edinburgh that he had no idea what practical applications this discovery could have. Apparently, the problem, as Abelard explained to me, is that the particle exists for only about a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second. That’s 24 zeroes, if I am not mistaken. So, Abelard couldn’t think of how you could apply that to anything useful.”
“Then I can have another drink, innit?” said the Whisky Sour.
“Certainly,” said Mr Mulliner. “But remember, the electron was discovered by Sir J.J. Thomson in 1897, and no one knew what to do about the damn thing. Till some clever fellows came up with the idea of electronics. Now, you would have no iPad without the electron, would you? And then there was George Boole, who developed Boolean algebra in the 1840s, and you could do a lot of things with binary numbers with that, but no one still could find any use for them in the practical world. It was only a hundred years later that someone chanced on the whole thing and voila! we had digital electronics!”
“Blimey!” said a Lemonade with Angostura, impressed. “Just the other day, I had taken the missus to Worplesham Lower for what they call a PET…”
“Absolutely,” agreed Mr Mulliner. “That was the other thing Abelard was talking about. Positron Emission Tomography. They bombard the body with these particles called positrons and get a three-dimensional image of how the body part is functioning, if there’s anything not quite kosher. And positrons live for less than a millionth of a second. Scientists have found a lot of use for these little tykes in medical imaging. Also, you must understand that the very effort to build something like the Large Hadron Collider and then make any sense of the immense quantity of data that it churns out leads automatically to development of new technology. Parallel processing, which gives you massive computing power, emerged so that all this vast data from quantum physics research could be handled. And not to forget, the World Wide Web was created at CERN, so that scientists could communicate with one another much more easily, and use html to refer to all sorts of things they were talking about.”
“So why not just build the Collider and let it be, and we’d anyway have all those new technologies?” said the Sherry and Bitters, who still wanted to talk about what happened last week when he had had one too many.
“Because the aim of science is to know,” said Mr Mulliner. “And pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is something that separates us humans from our cousins peeling bananas in the zoo. But suppose, for a moment, that what they have found is indeed the Higgs boson. We still don’t know all its properties, even whether it’s the only type of Higgs boson. They’ll be at it till they figure all that out. That could take another 48 years, who knows? But they’ll be at it. Now, the Standard Model, as they call it, which explains the universe in quantum mechanical terms, works only at very low energy levels, because we didn’t have the missing piece of the jigsaw till now—mass—the Higgs boson. With the Higgs boson in place, they’ll redo their calculations, and maybe the Standard Model will work at higher energy levels. Maybe then some day, you’ll be able to control mass...”
“Does that mean we’ll be able to lose weight more easily?” asked a Tankard of Stout hopefully.
“No, but it will certainly mean unimaginably more accurate bathroom weighing scales,” said Mr Mulliner with a smile. “But suppose you can control mass. You can then one day create artificial gravity. Which means you could even create anti-gravity. If you know all about mass, you could be able to convert it entirely into energy. That would solve all our energy problems for ever, and without depleting Nature in any way! Finding the Higgs boson has cost $13.25 billion till now. That’s very huge sum, but there are more than 50 individuals on this earth who are each worth more than that! Isn’t the money worth it?”
“So you think it’s something to celebrate?” asked a Samll Port. “Though we may not see the benefits in our lifetimes, maybe not even in our children’s lifetime?”
“Definitely,” said Mr Mulliner. “Professor Higgs said that he celebrated the discovery of the boson with a can of London Pride ale. Mrs Postlethwaite, would you have some stocks of the same by any chance? Yes? Then, this round is on me.”
For the first time in history, the Sage of Angler’s Rest was standing someone a drink.