There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
-- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I am delighted to report, we think we might know.
I am thrilled to announce, we think we are getting closer to a fundamental understanding of something we cannot, shall not, will not ever really get all that close to understanding, by nature of the fact that if you could get all that close to it, it wouldn't be the thing you think it is in the first place. Isn't life grand?
Does that ever stop us? That never really stops us.
We are, after all, a species that loves to know. Or rather, we love to think we know, love to believe we have a fairly solid grip on this or that universal splat of fact, truism, irrefutable meaning. After all, how can we possibly make our way through this life riot without at least pretending we have a clue what's going on?
We must agree on a basic framework. We must share a semi-coherent baseline of common understanding. Gravity. Relativity. Evolution. White wine with fish. Radiohead. That sort of thing. Otherwise it's all tiny-brained creationism, lizard overlords from the fifth dimension and thinking God hiccuped one groggy morning, and boom, gazelles. And no one wants that.
Perhaps you heard? Physicists are positively beside themselves -- which, until the discovery of bi-location in 1527, was thought to be technically impossible -- upon hearing the news that the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle/concept of how all matter exists in the universe, just might have been discovered, finally and true, thanks to decades of research and some incredibly powerful testing via the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, because where the hell else you gonna go for such discoveries, Latvia?
The boson sighting rocked the physics world. Cheering erupted. Weeping occurred. Excitement abounded -- which is also sort of new, given how, until 1687, excitement was believed to mostly just sulk around, pondering the WTF of gravity.
Why such ebullience? Because science just won a very huge bet with itself. Physicists posited an enormous theory, tested the hell out of it, spent billions and risked decades, and it proved to be true. No wonder they're giddy.
The Higgs boson is as significant as the discovery of the electron, they say. As big as Copernicus. As big as any major discovery you can name in your lifetime and that includes Radiohead and gay marriage and turn-by-turn navigation. This will change everything, they say. Again.
Shall we back up? Do you know who Peter Higgs is? The Higgs field? A boson? Particle physics is, alas, not where you go to find hot romance in the science biz. It ain't, say, astronomy, tossing up snazzy new planets, exploding supernovas and swirling black holes every other damn day. What can you do.
(Caveat emptor: It is far from the purview or ability of this column to explain the Higgs boson in detail. I barely get it myself, and it loses me when it discusses the absence of mass or fails to explain why Mitt Romney exists. But for more details and simplified explanations, there are videos, charts, sundry experts far more qualified than I who will gladly explain. It's fascinating. Bring coffee).
This much we know: the Higgs boson, the elemental particle, signals the most profound shift in decades regarding how we understand the makeup of the universe, as great an insight as the development of Standard Model itself. You've heard of the Standard Model? Sure you have. Electromagnetics, photons, quarks. It is, after all, the standard. Well, sort of.
So it will be for Higgs: the new paradigm, a newly accepted baseline from which incalculable future investigations, university departments and careers in physics will henceforth launch. It's just that potent. It's just that transformative.
It's also just that awesomely futile. Here's the perhaps the grandest news of all: The possible discovery of Higgs (and it still might be an imposter), despite its keen insistence on narrowing everything down to its most essential elements and functions, actually does just the opposite. It actually serves to expand the range of what we don't know, to veer us off in intoxicating new directions that will last maybe another 50 years, until the next big idea hits home, and we jaunt off all over again.
It has been this way since the dawn of science: the more "essential" the truth, the more quickly the meaning of that truth slips and dances away, failing ever more fantastically to capture what's really going on. We think we're drilling down, when in fact there is nowhere to go but out.
Put another way: We aren't getting any closer to anything. We're just getting slightly more interesting.
It's a divine equation...
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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate. He recently learned how to properly spank a nun, requested that you please join his Tantric yoga sex cult and begged you oh my God please do not eat this. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...