On Popes, Particles and Poetry

Stephanie Hunt

It’s been a big week for mass. Yesterday, as Pope Francis celebrated his first papal Mass in the Sistine Chapel, scientists at another Italian conclave—okay, it was a conference in Italy—released a major white-smoke announcement: yes indeedy, not only do we have a new pope, we have a God Particle.


The Higgs boson, the elusive particle thought to imbue elementary particles with mass (the other kind of mass, as in “the measure of the amount of matter contained in or constituting a physical body”) made a peek-a-boo appearance on July 4th this summer, when physicists at Geneva, Switzerland’s Hadron Collider thought they more or less, just maybe, could have possibly “found it.”  Yesterday, on Pi Day no less, after doubling down on the data, their initial inkling was further confirmed. Evidently the Higgs boson reveals itself when subatomic particles crash into each other at supersonic speed—it’s a high-energy mash-up. And evidently, if it were not for this particle, the electron would have no mass, and thus none of us would be here at all—the new Pope in his Prada red shoes included.

Honestly, I have no idea what any of this Higgs hoopla really means or why it matters. In light of our current obesity epidemic, I’d say the need to prove the existence of mass is perhaps a little behind the curve. (Just as I’d say the whole College of Cardinals conclave-and-smoke thing is a little passé in the day of Monster and Craigslist, not to mention the perpetuation of the ancient high church patriarchy culminating in the Holy See—but that’s another topic, and God bless Francis for riding the bus, paying his hotel tab, and caring about the poor.)  But despite my ignorance, or perhaps even because of it, I am enthralled by both of this week’s big reveals. Because I don’t fully understand what’s behind these centuries of papal pomp and circumstance, or behind the mystifying physics equations that compel scientists to spend billions of dollars and millions of hours on the Higgs hunt, my main response is a quiet, head-scratching awe. And poetry.

I am a science flunky and religious tinkerer who is both curious and skeptical; to me, the most reasonable answers and most compelling cosmic questions are expressed in verse and image. Turns out one of today’s most brilliant astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, agrees. As Tyson shared in a totally fabulous, worth-your-time interview with Stephen Colbert, he believes science and poetry and religion are basically on the same page: “Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.”

Basking is good enough for me. But for those of you who might want more insight into this majesty and into what the heck this Higgs is, I am pleased to share a brief interview with Charleston’s own John Keller, one of the physicists who is in Geneva, completing his PhD work as part of the team that discovered ol’ Higgs boson. John grew up on Wentworth Street, is a product of Charleston County public schools (Buist Academy and Academic Magnet), and gets his God particle smarts, in part, from his dad, the Reverend Bert Keller, the former (now retired) minister (and non-retired science buff) of Circular Congregational Church.

SH: So, John, how did you all first celebrate on July 4th?

"Champagne. Actually the celebration was sort of thrown together: there are two experiments, and neither one had quite discovered the Higgs on its own, only when you combine the two was there enough data to declare “discovery”. But we didn’t know what the other side was going to present, and you never want to buy champagne prematurely, so immediately after the press conference someone was sent to the grocery store to get it (7 bottles, one for each Higgs sub-group)."

SH: What does the discovery of this new particle mean for the average Jane/Joe?

"On a practical level, not very much. It’s unlikely to be used in any new technologies in the short-term, though having a coherent understanding of fundamental particles will certainly lead to new breakthroughs in the long term.

On a more fundamental level though, knowing the mass of the Higgs boson, we can now calculate the quantum corrections to the Higgs quartic self-coupling and deduce the vacuum stability of the Standard Model. In other words: if the Higgs is heavy enough, the universe is safe; whereas if it is too light, then at any point in space and at moment in time, a “vacuum bubble” could randomly appear which would rapidly expand and destroy all matter in the universe, including Jane, Joe, and everyone they know. The preliminary verdict: it is NOT heavy enough, and the universe is unstable. However it is close to heavy enough, so it is only 50-50 that such a bubble appears in the next 10^100 years. So Jane probably shouldn’t lose any sleep."

SH: How would you explain your work to, say, a surfer at Folly Beach or a bartender at Taco Boy?

"Mostly I sit at a computer and write code. But occasionally I have the opportunity to break something that cost several hundred million dollars to build."

SH: How did the Charleston County School District and AMHS prepare you for an international career in physics?

"The key word there is “international”. Of course, learning math and physics were important. But I think it is the diversity and global focus in CCSD (and the magnet in particular) that I’m most thankful for. I share an office now with five other people: a Greek, a Brazilian, a Briton, an Indian, and a Saudi Arabian. Knowing that Fortaleza is in the northeast, or which language is spoken in Chennai, or when Eid-ul-Fitr occurs this year … these things make a huge difference, professionally and socially. Geography, history, and foreign languages are hugely important, no matter what you want to do."