Sunday, March 29, 2015

Homer Simpson: Brilliant Theoretical Physicist?

Even though the world-renowned patriarch of The Simpsons is a well-known bumbling oaf, but did you know that Homer Simpson, at one time, exhibited his genius as a "theoretical physicist"?

By: Ringo Bones

Though he is more well-known as a dunce and a bumbling oaf, Homer Simpson – a world-renown animated character often used by its creators to assess the prevailing zeitgeist – once displayed his mathematical genius and even predicted the mass of the Higgs Boson to within more than 90-percent accuracy 14 years before it was confirmed by a team of particle physicists operating CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. To the curious, this was from an episode titled “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” where Homer Simpson got envious of Thomas Alva Edison and tries to out-invent the “Wizard of Menlo Park”. Does this mean that Homer Simpson is now in hallowed company with Peter Higgs?

The episode would have been forgotten and would have languished in some obscure footnote of 20th Century history if not for Dr. Simon Singh who wrote a book back in 2013 titled “The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets” that included a spotlight on the 1998 episode “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” when Homer becomes “obsessed” with Thomas Alva Edison and decides to become an inventor. A scene in that particular The Simpsons episode script required a reading glasses-clad Homer to be placed in front of a chalkboard with complex mathematical equations. One of the writers on staff had a physicist friend who was researching the then-theoretical Higgs Boson particle and needed a “scientifically believable” illustration of Homer dabbling with a complex mathematical equation predicting the mass of the Higgs Boson particle – which is also known as the “God Particle”.

“That particular equation - as shown on TV on that particular 1998 The Simpsons episode – predicts the mass of the Higgs Boson” says Dr. Simon Singh. “If you work it out, you get the mass of the Higgs Boson that’s only a bit larger than the nano-mass of a Higgs Boson actually is. It is kind of amazing as Homer makes the prediction 14 years before it was discovered” (in the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider). For those super interested, the Higgs Boson particle was discovered to have a mass of 126 GeV.

The Higgs Boson particle is the “visible” that interacts with the Higgs Field – just like gravitons do with the gravitational field. The Higgs Field is an energy force that permeates across the universe that gives baryonic matter mass and allows the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force to co-exist in the “Standard Model” of how we think, so far, on how universal molecular physics work.
Even though Homer’s mathematical musings on the Higgs Boson somewhat reminds me of 1984 Nobel Physics Prize winner Carlo Rubbia’s mathematical musings that was pictured on a 1990 era Time magazine, the field of particle physics / quantum mechanics, mathematics can be a very useful tool in discovering and describing an “unknown particle” with better than 90-percent accuracy. Back in 1962, a then 32 year old Caltech physicist named Murray Gell-Mann proposed a search for a then theoretical particle called the Omega Minus. The particle’s existence was mathematically predicted by the Standard Model, Gell-Mann argued by a theory he formulated himself and by another physicist – a then 37 year old former Israeli Army officer named Yuval Ne’eman.

This theory which Gell-Mann called “The Eightfold Way” was based on an obscure mathematical system invented in the 19th Century in order to manipulate numbers in groups of eight since each interacting nuclear particle had eight quantum numbers how subatomic baryons and mesons are organized into octets. Independently, Ne’eman did the same. Eventually, Gell-Mann was awarded the 1969 Nobel Physics Prize for his work on elementary particles and by 1971 began work in search for a then unknown family of particles called “quarks” using "The Eightfold Way".

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