Physicists in Switzerland just reported they are closing in on the “Higgs boson,” a hypothesized ultra-small unit that may be the building block of subatomic particles. Let’s hope they are right, so European taxpayers get a return on the $10 billion complex built to look for the Higgs boson.

Whether this particle is found will not affect your life in any way. But the search for abstract knowledge is part of the human quest.

Last year as the holidays approached, I reviewed the state of understanding of the size and age of the cosmos. This year for the holidays, the topic is what science knows (or thinks it knows) about some fundamental questions of nature.

* What is matter? When the atom was shown to contain neutrons, protons and electrons, these were assumed to be the basic components of matter. Then such particles were shown to be made up of quarks. Now it turns out quarks — well, you can fill in the sentence. The closer researchers look at matter, the less seems to be there. A baseball is solid at the macro scale: at the subatomic scale, it seems to be made of rapidly spinning packets of nothingness.

The Higgs boson, from which quarks may be made, is conceptualized not so much as a solid entity, rather, as a fluctuation in a mysterious field that some researchers think permeates the cosmos. What is the mysterious field? Your guess is as good as the next Nobel Prize winner’s.