Sometimes I wonder what the Wright brothers would think if they time-traveled to the present and experienced commercial air travel. They might be horrified and depressed about the fact that, rather than marveling at the wonder of flight, we get annoyed when our seat-mates don't close the window shades while we're trying to watch a movie.
Wednesday's announcement from CERN that physicists believe they've observed evidence of the Higgs boson particle is no doubt the first tender step into fabulous worlds of discovery.
Yes, let's pause to pour the champagne and imagine the new insights to come. Yes, let's bat our eyes at science, which always looks particularly dapper at moments like this. (And, yes, let's gnash our teeth at the United State's near-sightedness in canceling the Superconducting Super Collider, which most likely would have found the same evidence 20 years ago.)
Now, fast-forward past the celebration, the peer-reviewed papers, the endless analysis, the Nobel prizes, the technological implications, the fussy engineering, the patents, the patent lawsuits, the start-ups, and the market research. Here are some ways Higgs bosons might, someday, make people want to tear their hair out.
Sorry we're late. We got stuck in the express lane.
Higgs bosons imply the existence of a Higgs field, which is envisioned as a "condensate" that slows down speed-of-light particles and encumbers them with mass. If we find a way to "turn off" the field or create a local anomaly, we could end up with super-fast, super-express highways with mass-on / mass-off ramps. Miss your exit, though, and your next U-turn could be 100 million miles ahead.
The new missing mass problem.
If the Higgs field imparts mass, then perhaps reversing the field could take mass away. I'm sure that, if at all possible, we'd find a way to develop and market this as a weight-loss technology. If the system isn't calibrated perfectly, though, you might be "over-slimmed," and, since no matter what happens with health insurance, chances are it still won't cover elective procedures, you'll be stuck having to pay for a field-reversal-reversal and THAT cost is the square of the original fee.
Oh no, you're my WHAT?!
A particle that helps "mediate" between space and mass probably also relates to time. Why? Well, for one thing, an object's mass determines a gravitational field, and gravity affects the apparent flow of time. And for another, every time a physicist says "space," they're probably looking for a way to also say "time," because "spacetime" is really fun to say and -- just like "sequestration" -- everyone knows what it means even if they can't tell you off the top of their heads.
So, adjusting the Higgs field could lead to all kinds of kill-your-grandfather time travel scenarios we've been warned about. It could also lead to time-travel scenarios no one really wants to think about… (Go ahead, think about them.) On the plus side, you could finally stop trying to clone your childhood pet and instead just tempo-port him from the past.
Fire code, anyone?
The particle physics menagerie is divided into two fundamental classes -- fermions and bosons. One key difference is that fermions obey an exclusion rule (the Pauli Exclusion Principle) that says no two fermions can share the exact same state. They're kind of like billiard balls or cars or people. If you try to put two of them in the same physical state, you'll fail, get hurt, and/or be sued.
Bosons, on the other hand, aren't bound by the exclusion principle. They can all share the same state, which isn't a bad thing if bosons are like ideas and not like cars. If, however, we somehow use our newly found boson knowledge to make actual matter (like people) act like bosons, densely packed into the same state or space, there could be all kinds of problems.
European soccer games would be even more dangerous. It would take until summer to clear out Times Square after the New Year's Eve ball drop. On the other hand, the top 1 percent could also include the 99 percent so that would solve that.
One conundrum still keeping physicists employed is the search for anti-matter. It's a good thing scientists can't find it, though, because if there were equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, then, yes, they'd annihilate one another and we'd have neutral, boring, there-oughtta-be-a-law-of-conservation-for-that symmetry. Instead, we have an asymmetry of matter and anti-matter that, thankfully for us, has allowed matter to "win."
On the surface, the Higgs boson development doesn't seem to have much to do with this anti-matter mystery (it's its own anti-particle, actually), but, what if we found a way to let a Higgs boson look in a mirror? Upon seeing its own anti-matter reflection, it could spark a cataclysmic chain of matter/anti-matter annihilation that would make us wish the Large Hadron Collider actually HAD induced a black hole.
On a serious note...
In the flurry of news about the Higgs boson, the Indian physicist for whom all bosons are named -- Satyendra Nath Bose -- hasn't gotten much attention. He and Einstein predicted and described how particles not bound by the Pauli Exclusion Principle might behave. At low temperatures, certain aggregates of particles "condense" into a single state, and strange things occur -- like superfluids, which, as far as I know, haven't yet become annoying.
Sharon Klotz (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds a physics degree from MIT. She is a museum consultant, science educator and humorist.