Of the Higgs Boson and the Bubble

by Mary Martialay on July 11, 2012

As part of the celebration surrounding last week’s announcement that physicists had discovered the Higgs boson particle—a subatomic particle which is theorized to imbue elementary particles with mass—the Albany Times Union interviewed Rensselaer’s own Professor of Physics Jim Napolitano about the finding.

In the article in which he is quoted, Napolitano helped explain the importance of the Higgs boson to Capital Region readers.

Professor Napolitano is a vocal proponent of the importance of research in pure science, such as the research that has lead to the remarkable discovery of the Higgs. He has given a great deal of thought to the work done at institutions such as CERN—home of the Large Hadron Collider that smashed protons to create the Higgs—and at Rensselaer. He’s even spoken about the subject in an address he gave to the Rensselaer Phalanx Honor Society.

I asked him to share his thoughts with us here on The Approach. Here’s what he had to say:

When I describe my research (in so-called high energy elementary particle physics) I am frequently asked “So, what is it good for?”

Such is the lot in life for those of us in the “pure sciences” and, I suspect, to many in the arts and humanities. Urban legends provide humorous retorts: Benjamin Franklin purportedly responded “What use is a newborn baby?” while Michael Faraday supposedly answered his Prime Minister “I cannot say what use they may be, but I can confidently predict that one day you will be able to tax them.” Let me take a moment to try and come up with a more serious answer.

To me, mankind lives in a bubble. We cannot see outside the bubble, but we know there is more out there. Inside this bubble, there exists joy and also problems that need to be solved. Also inside the bubble are all of the tools we have at our disposal for solving these problems. Learning how to use this tools and to modify them is the work of the engineer and applied scientist.

However, more tools lie outside the bubble. (Likely there are more problems, too, but let’s not worry about them for now.) Those of us in the “pure” arts and sciences, we push on the bubble, expanding it so that we gather more tools. Nobody knows for sure which direction is the right one, to find the tools for any one particular problem, so we push on the bubble in all directions that we can. Steadily, we learn new things, build new tools, and help mankind solve more of its problems.

Our universities are the “bubble expanding factories,” especially places like Rensselaer. We teach students how to think outside the bubble, how to gather new facts and look in new places. Establishing the balance between “pure” and “applied” research is much easier at universities than it is at private profit-oriented companies and corporations. Indeed, our privilege to be at a place such as Rensselaer comes with significant responsibilities for the eventual betterment of our planet.

I enjoyed Professor Napolitano’s perspective. I hope you did too.