The Higgs Boson Anthology: The Theory of Everything by Marcella O’Connor
The rain came clawing at the windows. In the reenactment, this will be artistically lit and we will all be more fashionably dressed than would have been possible in 1984. Perhaps the costume director will dip back in time to academic tweeds and burgundy cardigans. Then again, I probably won’t feature in the reenactment. I was only a teaching assistant in this scene, sitting at a desk at the back of the classroom grading papers while the two of them worked at the chalkboard.
Dust haloed from their hands. A flash lit up the windows and thunder followed.
Green said, “We must be getting pretty close. The gods are trying to prevent us from completing this calculation.”
It was a good joke because if there were gods, he and Schwartz would have had even more work ahead of them, years more of brows dipping toward lined pages as pencils worked these deities into the theory.
I finished grading the papers, but I didn’t leave. The drama played out in chalk strokes on the blackboard. Lighting sharpened Green’s profile and dimmed his brown clothes black as he exorcised the anomalies from the equations. Schwartz intoned the names of Newton and Einstein, jokingly somber, as he cast out years of mathematical mistakes.
Finally the moment came. We all stood back and looked at the chalkboard. 496 on one side. Schwartz wrote 496 on under the other column and circled it.
I thought, I missed it. If I had been born a few years earlier, I could have been one of these Galileos. Instead, I am merely Tacitus. But at least I can be Tacitus.
Later I would stretch my memory for the comments that had passed between the two men as they worked. Something about Newton. Something else about Einstein. The actual words were lost. All that would come was the memory of the flashing storm and the chalk dust fog in the humid classroom.
That night, I went back to my apartment. My roommate was at the stove in neon shorts and legwarmers.
“How was work?” she said.
“Good. Great actually. I witnessed the moment when the theory of everything finally came together. The universe will never be the same.”
“Cool. Oh guess what? I got tickets to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Like oh my god! I’m so excited!”
“Relax. Don’t do it!”
I left her singing and cooking and went to my room. I sat on my bed and looked around at the stacks of textbooks. The universe would never be the same. Something with consciousness was reflecting the universe back at it itself by understanding it.
Now all they’d have to do is find the Higgs Boson. Suddenly a fear gripped me. What if they never find the Higgs?
I spent twenty-six years swinging like a pendulum between excitement at the theory of everything and dread that it could be wrong. Each swing meant a bit less than the last one until these two emotions were as common as boredom.
On my wedding day, I thought Yes I do love this woman but what if they never find the Higgs? When my son was born, This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me but what if they never find the Higgs? When my father died, He had a good life and passed on his genes but what if they never find the Higgs? When I finished my PhD, I worked so hard to get this and I want to find the Higgs, but what if it doesn’t exist?
When I started at CERN, another thought moved through my subconscious. Maybe the Higgs doesn’t exist. Maybe if I stare at the equations long enough, I will be the one to find the real answer. I will be Galileo after all.
By day, particles collided in the tunnel. We defied the laws of physics for fractions of milliseconds in search of the Higgs. We orchestrated the Big Bang over and over again. In my dreams, the universe pulsed between birth and death and birth while I stood back and watched.
My wife started playing cello again to relax after a day of particle collision. I bought a chalkboard and set it up in the attic. Adagios would float up through the floor boards from the sitting room. I imagined the notes were little drops of gravity and the floors were branes. Nebulas of chalk dust flew from my calculations, but there was nothing new at the end of them. If there were mathematical muses, they were impotent. Or I was impotent. The artistic portion of my brain waited for a thunder shower to arrive to signal the imminence of a solution. But it never came. And neither did a new theory.
Maybe the Higgs doesn’t exist at all. Maybe the theory of everything is wrong and the correct answer will never arrive in my lifetime. Maybe we are all Ptolemies and Galileo won’t be born for hundreds or thousands of more years.
Maybe I’m not Galileo. I’m not Ptolemy. And I’m not even Tacitus.