It seems every publication has run an article this week on the Higgs boson announcement. The articles are light on technical details. I realized why they are vague when I came upon Scientific American’s attempt to explain the discovery to laymen in two minutes.
The concepts are hard to understand, even for someone knowledgeable about the basics of physics.
The thing that stood out most was physicist Rob Roser’s comment that no one would have guessed the discovery of the electron in 1897 would lead to revolutionary technologies. Although I am not knowledgeable about the Higgs particle, my gut feeling is likening it to electricity is hyperbole. Electricity was studied long before the charge carrier was identified. Decades before the discovery of the electron, it was widely recognized that the transatlantic cable would be a revolutionary technology.
It’s still a provocative idea to imagine what if something from subatomic physics did form the foundation of a new technology. The behavior of subatomic particles is completely different from the physis of the macroscopic world. This is why pseudoscientific mystics lean on quantum physics to justify their claims. It is possible that subatomic physics discoveries could lead to high-energy-density power storage or smaller computers. More likely the advances would come in an area we aren’t even thinking of, such as a high energy propellant that makes possible human space travel throughout the solar system in a reasonable amount of time leading to the establishment of permanent space colonies.
I write this on American Independence Day, and it occurs to me that the US Declaration of Independence was another development whose outcome no one could foresee. This famous document became part of the basic theory behind democratic governments. Unlike the discovery of electrons, it did not deal with something that was already in practical use at the time. The American Revolution had just begun, and many people thought a protracted war could be avoided by coming to an agreement that did not include full independence. If the war continued, no one knew that the American Colonies would prevail. If they prevailed, no one knew that several years later the Colonies would pass a constitution that would become a model for countries around the world.
The precursor of information technology, the printing press, made mass literacy and modern democracy possible. Information technology may turn out to be as revolutionary as the printing press. No particular discovery such as the Higgs particle is likely to be revolutionary, but we know some discoveries and developments will be. It’s not bad to suspend disbelief for a moment and consider what if the Higgs particle led to something that revolutionized the world.