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Was that Bison or Boson?

Besides being the hottest USA summer on record, June and July of 2012 will go down as the time of two momentous discoveries. And though occurring oceans apart, and in vastly disparate fields, these landmark events may seem, at first glance, to have nothing in common. But with some perspective and a little imagination, they could perhaps be forever linked.

July 4th, Geneva, Switzerland. In the high-tech bowels of the CERN multinational research center, after a hunt spanning more than half a century, scientists are finally able to isolate an elusive and previously only theoretically-known subatomic particle, known as the Higgs boson. Considered the holy grail of all quantum physics for over 50 years, it is named for the guy who came up with the concept, brilliant English theorist Peter Higgs. The discovery of the eponymous particle is being hailed by the director of CERN and scientists worldwide as “a historic milestone”.

June 2, Goshen, Litchfield County, Connecticut. A month or so prior, approximately 3700 miles away, right beneath the Mohawk Mountains, a fourth-generation dairy-farmer named Peter Fay witnesses a milestone which to some is equally historic: the birth of a pure white albino bison, one of the rarest animals in the world.

A Buffalo By Any Other Name

Bison, it turns out, is the correct name for the North American buffalo – you know, the large brown plains mammal that the US government hunted to extinction to drive Plains Indians from their land to fulfill our Manifest Destiny – that is, the westward expansion of the railroad.

As Henry Thoreau so acridly said, “you only hit what you aim for,” and when it comes to aim, almost everyone’s heard of Buffalo Bill, famed hunter of the animal.  His long-rifle prowess commandeered the 1872-1873 “Buffalo Slaughter”, during which millions of bison were killed for their hides by some of the best sharpshooters in the world. An American icon for his dead-eye, Mr. Bill should more aptly have been called “Bison Bill”, as only the bison’s African and Asian cousins are truly considered buffalo.

Call him or the mammals what you will, all that survives here of those 40 million-strong herds are the 50,000 bison alive today, 39 of which live on Mr. Fay’s farm.  Incredibly, only one in ten million bison gets born white, which, given the small size of today’s herds, makes Mr. Fay’s bison about as hard to find as the boson.

The Second Coming

It’s perhaps equally rare to see physicists greeting a fellow theorist like a rock star but such was the case at CERN when Prof. Peter Higgs entered the boson announcement meeting to a standing ovation. And when word quickly spread by Webcast that the little boson he and a few colleagues predicted back in 1964 had been “found”, at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, and in London, Chicago, Princeton and points beyond, champagne started to flow.

When smart, dedicated people believe fervently in something and search for it for over 50 years, rapturous conduct like this is not only rational, but expected. You’d think it was the Second Coming, though in that event champagne will probably not be the libation of choice.

To understand exactly what the Higgs boson actually is, does not require a doctoral degree in physics. Rather, its conception appears elegant (in a nerdy sort of way) and (somewhat) intuitive, and sits at the root of what for the past five decades has been known in particle physics as The Standard Model.

Been to “Mass” Lately? 

Think of a vast and invisible force field that extends throughout the entire Universe.  They call this force field – a concept familiar to Trekkies – the Higgs Sea. It’s an infinite ocean of energy, made up say, of invisible maple syrup, or molasses if you prefer. And through this “sea” every single particle in the Universe must pass, not unlike Customs when you reach American shores. No exceptions. And as these particles, infinitesimally small, slip through “customs” – that syrupy Higgs Sea – they suddenly gain mass as the syrup “sticks” to them.

If the Higgs Sea does exist, the theory goes, because of all the colliding energy within it, it would produce a tiny, barely measurable manifestation, a particle. They named this particle-in-theory the boson, after genius Indian mathematician, the self-taught Satyendra Nath Bose, who worked with luminaries such as Marie Curie, and a guy you may know called Einstein. And to honor Professor Emeritus Peter Higgs, whose radical theories helped predict it, they named Mr. Bose’s boson the Higgs.

That G*damn Particle

Without particles moving through this mass-creating Higgs Sea, every elementary form of matter in the Universe would be nothing but energy, passing through your hand like a ray of light. There would be nothing in the Universe – no planets, no moons, no bosons, and certainly, no bisons. No atoms, and thus no life.  Understandably, you can see why the Higgs boson, if proven true, could be called the “key to the Universe”, which is why particle physicists had been searching for it, with that singular fervor, for over 50 years.

Leon Lederman, former director of Fermilab, (CERN’S predecessor in Illinois, which shuttered two years ago when it was defunded by the buffalo brains in Congress), went so far as to dub the boson “the God particle”, much to the dismay of his colleagues. For obvious reasons, religious figures embraced the designation for bringing such esoteric science into the realm Creationism, and Lederman’s lived to regret it. In his mind, the boson was so vexing and elusive he really just wanted to name it the “g*damn particle.”

A Head-On Collision

In the hope of isolating the boson, to prove that it, and thus the mass-producing Higgs Sea could exist, scientists set about duplicating the massive energy they calculated would exist in the force field. They got multinational funding to erect the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, a rather big and expensive Tonka Toy, that many ignoramuses, because of the massive amounts of energy it released, thought would cause the end of the world. When they hit the start button at CERN all that ended was ignorance, that, and one small fraction of Web-fanned fear.

CERN scientists schemed that if you bombard “a field” hard enough with the right amount of energy, duplicating conditions in the Higgs Sea, a boson (not a bison) would be born. Isolate the boson, and you validate Higgs’s theory of this “sea,” the force field that gives mass to everything, that Universal Key.

For the past two years that’s exactly what they were doing. Two teams of about 3,000 physicists led by Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela, conducted a whopping 800 trillion proton-to-proton collisions. And on July 4th, at last, a mere month after the bison, a boson was born. They had proven Higgs was right.

Though the CERN scientists are “merely” parsing arcane statistical probabilities, and measuring unimaginably small fluctuations of light and energy to “prove” that the boson exists, they are more than confident that it does. It doesn’t exist as, say, your latte exists, or that cheesy Olympic TV programming, but statistically it is more likely to exist than not. “Existence”, it turns out, in a proton-smashing particle collider, is determined by degrees of probability. Too bad it’s not the same with love, or money.

Center of the Universe

To many Native Americans, the one-in-ten-million birth of a white bison is so rare and improbable that it bears a supremely sacred message – so sacred that (like the boson) it is regarded like a Second Coming. It’s considered a precursor, a manifestation of Ptesan Wi, the Lakota White Buffalo Calf Maiden, revered as a prophet, who in a time of famine taught the Lakotas seven sacred rituals and gave them their most important symbol of worship, the sacred pipe.  These days, people like that go to jail.

More broadly, the white bison is a symbol of hope and unity, and the sacredness of all life, a sentiment that “Bison Bill” and his gunslingers clearly failed to share.

To Native Americans, the white “buffalo” calf is equivalent to the weeping statues, bleeding icons, even “the holy toast”, that $28,000 Virgin Mary cheese sandwich, all so prevalent in Christianity today. Where the Christian faithful who embrace these “phenomena” see them as a renewal of God’s relationship with humanity, so the Native Americans see the white buffalo calf as a sign of prophecy.

Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy

But of what? Dairy farmer John Fay is open to interpretations. He knows we’re in hard times and can use help wherever we get it. And just as the little boson is now the center of the physics universe, Mr. Fay’s farm is now the center of the Native American spiritual universe, and Fay embraces his bison calf’s importance to the tradition. Proving his commitment, he posted a 24-hour watch over his 30-pound bull calf, named on July 28 as Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy, so as not to repeat the carnage the last time a white bison was born: some jackass near Greenville, Texas shot and killed then skinned it, and poisoned its mother. Nice.

A symbol of hope to some had become a symbol of hate and bloodlust to others, and appropriately, the Lakota Nation is urging the Federal government to pursue the animal murders as a hate crime – the same government that massacred their buffalo for a railroad. Good luck with that.

Could it be that Fay’s tiny white bison was a “sign” announcing the discovery of the teeny Higgs boson? Who’s to say it wasn’t? So little is known of the boson, but scientists already believe that this breakthrough, solving that 50 year-old mystery, could lead to a string of exciting new scientific discoveries, unlocking perhaps the deepest and most vexing mysteries of the Universe.

Our Destiny?

It’s not just science for its own sake. Much in the same way that White Buffalo Calf Woman saved the Lakota from drought and despair, and gave them a good buzz to boot, this arcane new discovery could be a harbinger of radical things to come: anti-gravity machines; new forms of space travel; or at the very least a more secure quantum-based computer to protect our Web-lives from cyberthieves, and their mutant cousins, the data-miners who lurk behind your every click and tap.

Remember: today’s bleeding edge science experiment is tomorrow’s hot industry that makes more stuff for you to buy. If you doubt that, look up the origins of the PC, the Internet, and sad to say, nuclear power.

Where the discovery of the Higgs boson will lead us is a mystery. What’s no mystery, though, is that if there’s one last buffalo left in America, some bonehead will shoot it.  It’s our Manifest Destiny.