Higgs Boson Blues
Simulation of the hypothetical decay of a Higgs particle in particle jets at CMS/CERN. | © Image: CERN

Higgs Boson Blues

An obscure musical pilgrimage to Geneva's CERN

5. August 2022 | by Veit Ziegelmaier

Most songs are about love or heartbreak, about having a good time or about the trials and tribulations of life. Physical elementary particles, on the other hand, are sung about very rarely. Not so with "Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds". The Australian-born and singing cult poet published "Higgs Boson Blues" with his band in 2013 and thus created his own musical monument to the subatomic particle that has become known far beyond the boundaries of physics as the "God particle". The fact that the images created in the text, which suggest a pilgrimage to CERN in Geneva, appear just as complex in themselves as the physical understanding of the Higgs Boson is for the layman, is probably part of the poetic concept. Ultimately, it is about the search for knowledge and truth and the meaning of life, embedded in contemporary metaphors.

Click link below for the song and video:

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Higgs Boson Blues

"Have you heard about the Higgs Boson Blues?" reads a line of lyrics in the song of the same name by "Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds," which seems ill-suited for radio alone due to its length of over 9 minutes. Until its release in 2013 on the album "Push the Sky Away", this rhetorical question could probably be answered with a clear "no". Currently, the soon-to-be 10-year-old song is an integral part of the current live program, which will take Cave Nick and his band to 32 stops around Europe this summer, thrilling tens of thousands of lovers of his music. But what is the blues about, which, as we all know, is not only a musical genre but also a deeply felt melancholic attitude to life?

The "Higgs Boson" or also "Higgs particle" is an elementary particle named after the British physicist Peter Higgs, born in 1929, which is characterized by the fact that it is very massive, electrically neutral, as the only particle has no spin and decays after a very short time. The Higgs boson can be attributed to the "Higgs mechanism", a theoretical model from the 1960s, which states that all elementary particles, e.g. also electrons, apart from the Higgs boson only acquire their mass through interaction with the "Higgs field". The experimental confirmation of this theoretical assumption has been a long time coming due to the technical and physical requirements. However, in 2012, the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator at the European nuclear research center "CERN" near Geneva, succeeded in proving the existence of the Higgs particle in principle, for which the physicist was honored with the Nobel Prize in the same year. The discovery caused a sensation in the media far beyond the boundaries of physics, as the Higgs boson was from then on also referred to as the "God particle" due to its physical properties. This name comes from the fact that the Higgs boson gives all other particles their mass, which is how the universe as we know it came into being in the first place. It is, so to speak, the initial spark for everything, the emergence from nothing, which until now was reserved for God's finger pointing.

In this respect, the Higgs Boson can also be understood as a modern metaphor for knowledge and truth, the emergence of the universe, in short also in a spiritual sense as God's elementary building block.

In Nick Caves' Blues, the protagonist is on a kind of pilgrimage to Geneva, the place where, similar to the well-known French place of pilgrimage Lourdes, a miracle of revelation has occurred. Probably driven by the Faustian desire to "know what holds the world together in its innermost being", a long journey in scorching heat begins, during which all kinds of daydreams and images arise before the mind's eye. Again and again, the everyday and the carelessness of a superficial life without need for knowledge is described. But the descriptions of, for example, young girls and women who flit about in the bloom of their beauty, self-focused and guileless, contrast richly in variation with the darker sides of life, such as grief, death and illness. Reading and listening to these lines, one may be reminded of the biblical expulsion from paradise, after Adam and Eve had nibbled from the forbidden fruit on the tree of knowledge and suddenly became aware that life holds not only sunny but also dark sides. Again and again the two sides of a coin are sung about in the song: Missionaries who supposedly wanted to do good spiritually and yet ultimately brought death and disease to those they were trying to convert with the flu, which was unknown in distant lands at the time. Another modern metaphor for a constructed and reality-blanking ideal world is the mention of the Disney children's series "Hannah Montana," which was current at the time of the song's creation. In the song, the actress Miley Cyrus suffers a fictitious, unspecified death in the swimming pool of her estate as the ultimately sad downside of her early fame. And in the middle of it all, we meet the blues legend Robert Johnson, about whom the anecdote is told that he was in league with the devil because of his exceptional virtuoso talent, to whom he sold his soul in exchange - as Goethe's Faust once did for youth and knowledge. Ultimately, it is about the old question of how to explain the world and its condition between suffering and joy, life and death in the 21st century. And perhaps about the meaning of life in times of spiritual failure. So how about - now at vacation time - a little trip to Geneva?