What should our expectations be regarding scientific theories? That question regularly bobs to the surface for me. When I taught physics in the Peace Corps over twenty years ago I worried over it. And now, with an inquisitive thirteen-year-old curious about the recent results from the pursuit of the Higgs Boson asking me questions, I continue to think that the conceptual shifts requisite for scientific understanding are perhaps as important as the science itself.
You see, none of it makes simple, clean sense. And none of it makes sense precisely because there is no conceptual similarity between our everyday scales of interaction and those of the mega and the micro. They are baffling and complex and not fully understood. We should take great pride in this, as human beings. We should revel in the rise of experimentation and rationality that has led us to this baffling precipice. We should not back away into the gray simplicity that predates what our scientific investigations have brought us to, because they make enough sense that they can be understood with some effort. But the urge is there; relent at the scale, scope, and complexity of the edifice that is required to get even basic traction. It either doesn’t impact me or is inhuman at some level.
But it needn’t be. The Higgs Boson is simply badly explained because it it based on preserving explanatory footholds that relate to everyday physics of cars and bowling balls. Drop that assumption and things get both weirder and simultaneously simpler. The universe appears to be composed of stuff that has a holographic quality to it in the sense that holograms replicate images throughout their structure. Break a piece off of a hologram and you can still see the image in it. In other words, the information for stuff (avoiding the terms “particle” or “wave” deliberately) is spread out but is also localized. It has tails that spread out but its information is largely in a certain time/space location. A field is another word for the way stuff reaches out and entangles other stuff. We can even describe fields as being “virtual particles” that are interchanged between other particles. So, electromagnetic fields that are not too energetic and are close are really virtual photons zipping between other stuff to carry charge and energy. Virtual particles are really just extensions of this notion of the spread-out nature of stuff itself, however–they are a way of accounting for the entanglement between stuff.
No surprise that mass is the entanglement of stuff with space itself resulting in properties that we call inertia and momentum, for instance. Equally unsurprising is that the electromagnetic force is due to the entanglement of charged particles with one another. The former is mediated by a Higgs Boson while the later by a photon. Gravitons are still to come, but are still placeholders for this same general tendency for stuff to entangle against other stuff. The wicked complexity is in the details, of course, but the conceptual desire to unify our everyday model of normal scale events needn’t create unnecessary cognitive dissonance with our sharpening picture of the nature of the universe.
Stuff could have been more smeary but instead it has exactly the properties that we observe (~120GeV for the Higgs Boson, for example). It could have been mediated by more forces reflected in more different types of bosons (different types of resonances of smeariness between the stuff that we refer to as particles), but it isn’t. It’s all gratuitously weird while being just understandable. And that makes it luminously fun.