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It’s an iconic image: the professor of physics, wild hair, Einstein-like, standing before a chalkboard covered with arcane equations. It could be Einstein himself, the scribbled mathematics describing his theory of relativity and the link between mass and energy, E=MC2.

Or, later, Paul Dirac, the English physicist who, seeking mathematical elegance, forged bonds between Einstein’s relativity and the quantum theory, and set the stage for physics today.

The tentative discovery at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider of the Higgs boson -- among the key missing links in our fundamental theories of matter -- again shows the surprising power of mathematics to illuminate nature’s secrets. But the discovery also points to the value of scientific metaphor, of guessing that things we know nothing about might turn out to be surprisingly similar to things we’re familiar with. Indeed, the theory behind the Higgs boson owes as much to what’s already known about mundane things like iron magnets and metals as it does to exotic mathematics.

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