Science Can Be Lyrical

Have you noticed that when the particle physicists describe interactions and entities, they are almost lyrical? It’s come as a complete shock to me because generally, science is a very concrete endeavor. That’s not to say that these scientists are not concrete. It is to say that they express their thoughts in exceedingly non-concrete ways. It’s great for the rest of us, but just what do I mean?

  1. In the nano world, it is said that one part will have the key to unlock the other. Sometimes there are even accompanying images that show a particle with a key shape encountering a particle with the corresponding lock. It’s meant to be a representation that will make sense to a student or other reader; that’s clear. What is not clear is when scientists suddenly developed a group-wide bit of whimsy. Until now, the closest I’d come to this was the book I used to study Calculus one summer.
  2. Subatomic particles have flavors. They also have color properties. And anti-colors. Or Colours. The thing is if we can’t see these things, how do we know what color they are? And by anti-color, do we mean the colors opposite them on the color wheel? Up until now, any time there has been something to explain in my science education, it has been straight up/straight down a concept and good luck if your brain doesn’t work that way. So to describe something in terms of colors also means that the colors can blend to create a new color. There’s a great deal of appeal to that.
  3. Subatomic particles spin and have charges and partial charges. They spin to the left of to the right. You can tell by the way they affect other things around them. I can get behind that, although I wonder if they really mean they are literally spinning?
  4. There are fields everywhere. A field has a value at each point within the field. For some fields, the value is 0. I have to say, I’m having a hard time picturing all these fields with 0 values in each position. Maybe it would be easier if they said the entire field was pink, or blue, or something else — but then that would not be concrete.
  5. It turns out that some simplifying assumptions are behind the energy equations used in some computations. I am here to tell you, those simplifying assumptions were not made clear to me. They sure do make a world of difference!

I’ve been listening to the Audible Great Courses The Higgs Boson and Beyond with Professor Sean Carroll. I still have a bit to go. I know it’s likely that the first time through, I’m not thoroughly grasping what it is he has to say. I also know that his presentation is clear and his style is engaging.

Bottom Line: Could it be that theoretical physicists imagine the world in a lyrical way? Could it be they see the same things I see, through the eyes or a logical yet fanciful perspective? If so, I think it’s a great breakthrough for the rest of us – once we get it through our heads that a spinning read subatomic particle may not be that at all – but may instead behave in such a way as to call that to mind.

PS If you have no idea what the Higgs Boson is, no clue to the identity of the man in the featured image, and/or no notion of what the contraption behind him is, and why more than $13 billion was spent in the associated endeavor — shame on you.


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