Peter Bromhead: Mexican hat particle

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Cartoon / Peter Bromhead
Cartoon / Peter Bromhead

Recently, while entertaining a family friend - who happens to be some sort of rarefied astro-nuclear physicist from Sweden - I attempted to show off my intellect by asking: "so, how's the God particle going?"

Our guest had recently returned from working in Switzerland on the Hadron Collider project. "You mean the Higgs particle?" she replied, adding, "we regard the sobriquet, 'God particle,' as inappropriate. That's really just a term favoured by the media to create sensationalism."

Suitably reprimanded, I tried again. "I've read somewhere that the profile of the Higgs field is similar to a Mexican hat, is that true?" Impressed by my rudimentary knowledge, our dinner guest continued, "would you like me to explain the mathematical formulation so you understand why it is likened to a Mexican hat?" When you are trying to crank up communication with a physicist, it's prudent to nod eagerly and hope for the best.

"Well ..." she continued, "in the standard model, the Higgs field is a four-component scalar field that forms a complex doublet of the weak isospin symmetry."

"Of course," I murmured, too enthusiastically.

"So, you understand enough in layman's terms how the quarks and the leptons interact with the Higgs field through Yukawa interaction?" she responded, surprised by my knowledge. "Naturally," I muttered, bravely pretending we were still on the same page." "Well, in that case, I'd be interested in your views on the fundamental Mu problem," she asked.

Unfortunately, having children, I immediately misunderstood this as baby talk and replied, "what's the connection between mooing cows and Higgs bosons?"

Luckily, the caregiver intervened and as a former scientist, explained that the Mu problem is about supersymmetric theories and perhaps it was time to change the subject for the benefit of the cartoonist's scientific reputation that was rapidly disappearing down a black hole of his own making.

After a lengthy silence, our physicist friend benignly asked me, "what's your favourite cartoon?"

"I quite like a New Yorker drawing of a bloke checking his diary while on the phone, saying 'No Thursday's out. How about never - is never good for you?"' I responded, smiling.

"Excuse me," responded our baffled Swedish guest. "I don't understand the punchline.

That seems rude, not funny!"

"Ah!" I responded, smugly. "I think we've just come across another supersymmetric problem. In this case, we're reached the parameters of another type of enigmatic dark matter - known as humour. You either understand the joke, or you don't."

- NZ Herald

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