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Higgs

Entry 1409, on 2012-07-05 at 20:08:13 (Rating 3, Science)

It seems that the discovery of the Higgs particle is now certain, or at least 99.999% certain which is almost as good. The search, which has taken so long, has finally ended and the existence of the Higgs further supports the standard model of particle physics. That is great because it confirms the accuracy of that model but for some (such as Stephen Hawking) it is also a bit disappointing because many great advances are made when new discoveries don't fit with existing theories.

The Higgs particle (or Higgs boson) is a fundamental particle (like an electron or quark) which was first proposed by Peter Higgs (along with a few others) in 1964. It is the last particle predicted by something called the "Standard Model" which is a scientific model which explains the particles everything in the universe is made from (I'm ignoring dark matter in this discussion!)

The announcement of the existence of the Higgs was made by physicists from CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) using the LHC (large hadron collider) which is arguably the greatest machine ever built (it's a giant circular particle accelerator 27 kilometers in circumference).

There are plenty of technical and simplified descriptions of what the Higgs is so I won't waste too much more time on that here but I will say it is the particle associated with the Higgs field, a field which gives particles mass. It's detection is incredibly difficult because it is very unstable and breaks down to other particles in a tiny fraction of a second. And the collisions which create the Higgs also create millions of other particles so finding one in all that noise is a real challenge.

So this is a supreme technical achievement and an important confirmation of existing theories but what is the point of this search? Does it even have a point, and should it have one?

It is difficult to see how the existence of the Higgs could be used in any immediately obvious practical way, such as in any practical technology so some people would say that means it has no point.

I would make two observations here though.

First, theoretical scientific discoveries often seem to be pointless but later become important in newer technologies which weren't even imagined at the time the discovery was made. Would Isaac Newton have imagined that his laws of gravitation would allow the Apollo missions or communications satellites? It seems unlikely.

Second, why should everything need a practical (which usually means commercial) purpose? Isn't just the fact of knowing something sufficiently important in itself to make it worthwhile? I think so.

I have heard detractors of this type of science complain that theoretical science should be cut during tough economic times. What nonsense. Less is spent on CERN per year than what is spent on tobacco advertising! And what makes the more valuable contribution to society: a bunch of lies about a dangerous product, or dedicated research on the fundamental laws of the real universe?

If you are the type of person who is really happy living in a world where billions can be wasted on advertising harmful or useless products while we cut funding to truly inspiring science then you're a very sad case, aren't you.

And please don't give me the nonsense about companies having the right to use their money in any way they see fit where scientists have to survive on whatever they get from the taxpayer. If that's the way the world works - one group of people can spend billions on selling a dangerous drug or sugar water but it's hard to get funding to make progress in science - then there's something fundamentally wrong with the way the world works, don't you think?

Let's look at the big picture. If Marlboro or Pepsi (and I'm sorry to pick on them, it could just as easily be Coke or another tobacco company or McDonalds or any other useless corporate entity) stopped advertising their products tomorrow would anyone really care? Well a few advertisers would and maybe a few people who work for the companies, but if they all disappeared tomorrow anyone could step in and fill the gap - it requires almost nothing to do so.

But what would happen if we stopped trying to progress fundamental science and advanced technology? We don't know for sure because uncertainty is one of the key factors involved in this sort of research, but past experience indicates that when you give up real progress and revert to inward looking and short-sighted thinking (the type of thinking we see all the time from people oriented towards business, religion, and politics) you will fail.

So everyone should celebrate the discovery of the Higgs, even people who haven't got the slightest idea what it is, because ultimately this is the sort of progress that helps everyone.

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Comment 1 (3213) by OJB on 2012-07-08 at 10:14:30:

A correction to what I write above: the scientists say they have more than "five-sigma" certainty that the particle was the Higgs boson, which means they are 99.99999 percent certain of their conclusions. I originally said "just" 99.999.

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Comment 2 (3224) by SBFL on 2012-07-10 at 10:13:12:

I agree with the gist of the post in that scientific advancement should be supported, even with taxpayers money. I agree that initial benefits may not be obvious now, but almost certainly they will come to fruition in the future. We ALWAYS have to start somewhere. Congratulations to the scientists and their supporters. Well done.

But lets not get political and start to compare to multi-national companies. They occupy a different space in society, not the same one, so it unfair to compare. McDonalds and Pepsi may not go down in the history books for their scientific achievements but they are commercial businesses, something quite different. Their growth directly creates jobs and supports families far beyond what scientific research investment ever could (up front). They are not as interesting but they contribute to society in a different way. We need both, commercial success and both scientific advancement, not one or the other.

I would even say they go hand in hand. Commercial success comes often only after scientific improvements, so why deny what science can bring us? Consider one a product of the other.

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Comment 3 (3231) by OJB on 2012-07-10 at 10:42:03:

Well you should know that I can put some sort of political (or religious) angle out of any news item, no matter what the topic!

I actually disagree (you'll be surprised to hear). I don't think corporations like Pepsi contribute much because big corporations don't just operate in a vacuum. For every big corporation there are thousands of small businesses who have failed because they could not compete. So there is a net loss of jobs as a result of corporations.

And yes, corporations use the results of science which is why they should be taxed so that further science can be done. I'm not saying corporations don't have a place, just that they need to be tightly controlled for the benefit of society as whole.

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Comment 4 (3234) by SBFL on 2012-07-10 at 10:57:50:

And I'm also sure you agree in Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest so your crocodile tears of the mom and pop stores hold little water. Even multi-nationals started from nothing. Everyone has a chance in open markets.

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Comment 5 (3288) by OJB on 2012-07-10 at 20:40:22:

You know I reject this so-called open market: there are many examples of superior products being eliminated by inferior ones belonging to companies with some unfair advantage, but that's not even the point.

The point is this: you said one of the good things about corporations is that they provide a lot of jobs. But I pointed out that they actually result in a loss of jobs because one big company is likely to employ less people than the many smaller companies it destroys.

So what were those advantages of corporations again?

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