Sunday, July 8, 2012

What we might learn from the Higgs boson?

I must confess a fair amount of interest in the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, aka "The God Particle." It is an amazing story, though its true meaning seems beyond the grasp of most of us mortals. I won't bother to attempt to explain what it is, since there are many resources available on the web, but briefly, as I understand it, it is the thing which causes the protons, neutrons, etc. to, in a word, coagulate into matter; otherwise they would be merely energy. I am confident my friend Jose Menchero, whose doctorate is in theoretical physics, could do a great job explaining it. Hopefully, he won't critique this post.

In this weekend's WSJ, Michio Kaku, a CUNY theoretical physics professor, wrote (in "The Spark That Caused the Big Bang") about the facility in Europe where the discovery was made (Kaku described it as a donut shaped structure with a circumference of 27 miles, which borders Switzerland and France).

He tells of how two proton beams are shot through the structure, in opposite directions, and accelerated to near light speeds. They are forced to collide, and "for a fraction of a trillionth of a second, the Higgs boson appears."

We often speak of precision in performance measurement. I would think a trillionth of a second would be quite a fraction; the amount of time spoken of here perhaps doesn't have a word associated with it, it's so small, or if there is a word, we aren't familiar with it, so it was left out of the article.

Apparently the expression "God particle" hasn't always been embraced by physicists, and I recall reading this past week that some refer to it as the "goddamn particle," because of its refusal to be found. But found it has been; at least the confidence level of those who claim it is at the "99.9999%" level, which seems pretty darn confident.

In performance and risk measurement we deal with numbers all the time. And we strive to be as confident as possible with the accuracy of what we produce. Fortunately, our returns are typically shown to only two decimal places (i.e., to basis points), though some like to show fractions of these (and I admit that I do, too, when the numbers are so tiny that they'd be 0.00% otherwise), while others prefer to just show the return to a single decimal place.

And so, what might we learn from the Higgs boson? That some things can be illusive; if we want to discover them, we must be patient and persevere. That perhaps we need to think of some of our industry's own "Higgs bosons." That is, are there things we merely take for granted, without any empirical evidence? I believe there are; in fact, I'm attempting to address two of them right now. We are blessed with some true researchers, such as Jose, who, perhaps because of their educational pursuits, are quite adept at the rigors of research. We can probably stand a few more. Our industry, unlike physics, is still very much at its infancy. New discoveries and ideas arise on a regular basis; perhaps this is one reason so many of us enjoy it.

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