Higgs Boson humorists get mass following

Story highlights

  • New particle fits description of elusive Higgs boson, scientists say
  • Since then, there has been wave of Higgs humor on Twitter
  • Difficulty of understanding something is perhaps thing that makes it funny

Higgs humor has humbled me.

I thought I'd nailed it, when I wrote what could be the first original Higgs Boson joke ever here.

But since this week's announcement that the Higgs particle has been found, there's been a wave of Higgs humor on Twitter, a lot of it curated by Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin, whose battle with breast cancer led her to tweet: "Gonna start calling my post-mastectomy, science-rebuilt cyberboob the "Higgs Bosom."

To be funny about something you usually have to understand it well.

But sometimes it's the difficulty of understanding something that makes it funny.

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From @pourmecoffee: "Higgs Boson Explainer: It's like, a particle, man."

Science writer @edyong209 tweets: "A Higgs boson walks into a bar. The barman doesn't understand." And "Re: CERN, some ppl say it's silly to put so much money in something few people understand. Presumably those ppl also avoid banks."

@scullymike tweets: "There's an easy-to-understand video online that explains Higgs boson & creation of the universe, but it's like four minutes long. Pass." Turns out Mike Scully's a ringer -- he used to write for The Simpsons and much more.

The humor can get a little deeper once we understand that the Higgs particle is responsible for all things having mass.

From the astrophysicist with the mass following @neiltyson: "The Higgs discovery makes me feel heavier already." He adds: "What we need instead is the anti-Higgs. A particle that takes mass away." Two punchlines in one tweet. DeGrasse Tyson!

This one from from a joke written by @sciencecomedian, is making the meme rounds big time: "The Higgs Boson walks into a Catholic Church. Priest says "What are you doing here?" HB says "You can't have mass without me."

For a little more context, read The New York Times' @doverbye who, best I can tell, has never tweeted so I had to read the whole article where he writes that without Higgs "all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight."

In other words, without Higgs, all life would be like a tough day of parenting.

My favorite Higgs Humor on Twitter comes from a guy who dared challenge the rule of never telling more than 3 jokes on a single subject. @afrakt tapped into the public exhuberance over the Higgs discovery: "Wow! People going crazy for Higgs. Huge parade down Main St. Fireworks tonight!"

And then: "Oh come on! McDonald's to offer 1800 caolorie Higgs McBoson. Blames physics for obestity epidemic."

And "Republicans rail against the Higgs boson as the largest taxing of Americans' brains in history."

I figured anyone who can do a Higgs Hat Trick could be worth talking to. So I tracked down @afrakt, aka Austin Frakt, Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston University with a specialty in Health Care policy.

Frakt got his undergrad degree in physics from Cornell and his Ph.D. from MIT in statistical signal and image processing which, he explains, means "how to make sense of streams of data using statistics and applied mathematics."

But "public policy was always in my blood," he tells me. So Frakt has been applying the scientific method to health care.

I sense an opportunity. We Americans don't have a single-payer health care system. We have so many health plans to choose from. It's overwhelming.

Have you, Professor Frakt, been able to game the health insurance system and, if so, can you tell our CNN audience how?

"I used to choose my health plan based on word of mouth from colleagues," he confesses to me.

"Last year, I decided I really should put my money where my mouth is and pick a plan more rationally."

Here's the short version.

"The plans are different in dozens of dimensions," says Frakt.

"I'd have to go through all my health records, which doctors did I see, how much did I pay, what were the co-pays, which drugs did we use, did I have to take my kids to the emergency room.... " He'd have to assess all of it in light of what he predicted his family's health care needs would be in the coming year.

And to top it off -- "I would have to do all that by hand."

Why?

Because there is no comprehensive unified system of health records in the U.S.

And so, Professor Frakt reveals: "I couldn't even take step one with this process. No way could I amass all the key information in a reasonable amount of time."

Which got Frakt thinking about Higgs again.

Maybe, he thought out loud, we need a piece of technology that doesn't exist to solve the problem of choosing a health plan. Just as the world's great physicists created the multi-billion dollar Great Hadron Collider to smash particles until Higgs was revealed.

Maybe, says Frakt, "we need a pretty big tool."

Professor Frakt could be on to something. A Great Collider for crunching the costs and benefits of our health care plans. The power of imagination -- applied to one of society's great challenges.

And that's how you develop a big idea from a few little tweets.

Postscript: After this piece first posted, @sciencecomedian, aka Brian.Malow, sent us the video of him performing his 'Higgs walks into a Church' joke. The year was 2009. The joke is 16:30 into the video. But it's best to listen to his whole riff, which begins around 13:00. Laughing and Learning.

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