By Dr. Jim Ferguson


I’ve been thinking about swimming lately. Not because I like to swim because I don’t. Swimming for me is not the fluid or powerful strokes of an Olympian, but struggling to avoid drowning. I remember my mother taking a station wagon load of us kids to swimming lessons one summer rather than utilizing the ole time method of just throwing a kid in the water. That may work with dogs, but sink or swim is not an advisable method. As a chubby kid I especially looked forward to post-lesson ice cream at Kay’s as reward for trying hard. I don’t remember much else about swimming classes, but I remember my favorite ice cream was chocolate almond. The only detail I recall of those days was biting into a frozen roach in the ice cream, mistaking it for an almond.

Most little children and especially my grandson love water. We’ve been taking Oakley to our community pool lately and teaching him to not be afraid of the water, holding his breath and closing his eyes when he’s dunked. It’s a work in progress, but an enjoyable one. It’s certainly better than swimming laps even though this is good exercise. By the way, if you’re not an accomplished swimmer, a snorkel and a mask make the work of breathing a lot easier and might be enough to get you out of your arm chair and into a pool for exercise.

Splashing in the shallow end with Oakley caused me to think of the ancient Greek Archimedes who is most famous for his exclamation, “Eureka!” Purportedly, as he lay floating in a therapeutic bath he figured out that his body displaced a volume of water, and the weight of that displaced water was equal to his own. Have you ever wondered why a cruise ship doesn’t sink? The weight of water displaced by the hull is greater than the ship’s weight and consequently it floats. Our bodies similarly float in the water which partially supports our weight. Doctors often recommend water therapy and exercises done in a pool because they are easier on arthritic joints.

Swimming laps is boring and my mind often wanders. As I pull my hands and arms backward in the Australian crawl I move forward through the water, but why? Actually, Isaac Newton answered the question with his third law of motion in the 1600s. He said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” As I pull backward against the water my body is thrust forward. So swimming is more than time with Oakley, it’s a study of physics! And there’s more.

The pool has caused me to reflect on even deeper symmetries. In the 1960s the theoretical physicist Peter Higgs predicted a fundamental sub-atomic particle that now bears his name. Some may have heard of the Higgs’ boson euphemistically called by media types as “the God particle.” In previous essays I’ve mentioned the unimaginably small building blocks of protons, neutrons and electrons collectively known as the “quantum zoo,” perhaps because there are so many of these strange “birds.” The quantum theory is now almost a century old and our understanding continues to evolve. The physics of the quantum realm drives our computers and cell phones, though we don’t understand it and “we see only in part,” to quote the Apostle Paul. Until just recently, scientists had identified all the numerous elements of the mysterious quantum realm except the most critical and elusive one, the Higgs’ boson.

In the 1980s a project began to build the most complex and largest machine ever made by man, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN physics lab outside Geneva Switzerland. Similar machines accelerate particles like protons to velocities just under the speed of light and then crash them into other atoms or particles to simulate the earliest moments of the Creation. The crash scene debris are then analyzed and the quantum zoo was observed, moving it from theory to observational reality.

In 2012 the LHC was up and running and the debris data confirmed the missing link (Higgs’ boson) of what has been called the “standard model” of the quantum world. Why is this important or worth six billion dollars and twenty plus years to discover this particle? Politicians asked this question and then cancelled America’s machine project before squandering our money elsewhere. I thought about the book/movie Contact and the construction of that fictional machine. In Carl Sagan’s book some thought it useless to ask the questions how the universe works, where did we come from and what is our purpose.

Professor Higgs lived long enough to see his theory confirmed and he was awarded the 2013 Noble Prize in physic. He earned his Nobel Prize.

Strange as it sounds particles and energy waves exist simultaneously in the quantum world, and the discovery of the Higgs particle defined the Higgs field that suffuses the universe – think about the Force in Star Wars. The Higgs field is analogous to the invisible electromagnetic field around a magnet which you can outline with iron filings or on an Etch-a-Sketch.

Physics at the theoretical and experimental level is way beyond my pay grade and stretches my imagination. How strange to think that the Higgs field is what determines all the mass in the universe. In a sense it floats our boat just as water does in the pool.

Scientists look for co-existing and balanced patterns they call symmetries as in the word symmetrical. I look for patterns as well. And I search for truth just as Socrates did all his life.

Humans are inquisitive creatures, it is our nature. Some people side with reason and observation to find truth. Some hold to “the way, the truth and the Life” as a focus to give meaning. I hold to both perspectives at the same time, analogous to the particles and waves of the quantum world. At times one vision holds greater sway than the other as I try and balance the symmetry.

It is the Easter season, and I am now focused on the event that changed the world. Some mistakenly look for objective proof which is not possible. It’s a time to leap in faith like the Russian novelist Dostoevsky who said, “If anyone prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, then I would choose to remain with Christ rather than the truth.” Food for thought…