Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fun with particle physics

A literary extract today, from a playwright who was interested right from the start...

(The theatre critic Birdboot arrives at a performance and plumps himself down next to fellow-critic Moon)

Birdboot: ...I'm on my own tonight, don't mind if I join you?
Moon: Hello, Birdboot.
Birdboot: Where's Higgs?
Moon: I'm standing in.
Moon and Birdboot: Where's Higgs?
Moon: Every time.
Birdboot: What?
Moon: It's as if we only existed one at a time, combining to achieve continuity. I keep space warm for Higgs. My presence defines his absence, his absence confirms my presence, his presence precludes mine... When Higgs and I walk down this aisle together to claim our common seat, the oceans will fall into the sky and the trees will hang with fishes.
Birdboot (he has not been paying attention, looking around vaguely, now catches up): Where's Higgs?

(Tom Stoppard: 'The Real Inspector Hound', 1967)


  1. I'm always confusing bosons with with bosuns. You might say I am all at sea on this subject.

  2. Lots of fun is to be had by everyone with this stunning piece of scientific backslapping.

  3. Stoppard at his brilliant best, than which etc, etc ...

  4. In 2005 I published an article on names in "The Real Inspector Hound," in which I suggested that Higgs was named after the Higgs particle. See "The 'Magnus Effect': Names in The Real Inspector Hound," English Language Notes 43: 2 (2005), 180-92.

  5. KW, given Stoppard's well-documented interest in particle physics and his incorporation of scientific and philosphical ideas into his work, I assumed when I first read the play back in the 90s that it was a deliberate reference.

    (I was lucky enough to be more clued up than most, having friends who worked at CERN)

    I don't know how much of the wording of Moon's speech predates Higgs 1964 announcement, but if, as I suspect, 'My presence defines his absence, his absence confirms my presence, his presence precludes mine' is a product of the 1967 revision rather than the 1962 original draft, it strongly suggests a reference to the Higgs Boson; you would know better than I whether the name was changed between 1962 and 1967.

    I've been surprised not to see the idea more widely discussed - if there's any way to read your article without access to online journals, I'd love to have a look at it.

  6. Hi Macheath, If you are still interested in my article on The Real Inspector, as mentioned over a year ago(!), I now know how to get it to you. But I would need an email address. KW

  7. KW, Thank you!


    I look forward to reading it and, with your permission, of course, sharing it with my 6th form pupils (who are, by happy coincidence, currently reading Frayn's 'Copenhagen' and Duerrenmatt's 'The Physicists').

    (Apologies for the delay: your comment got briefly stuck in moderation.)