Monday, 9 July 2012

Higgs Exists!... Unfortunately.

A huge congratulations is in order to everyone at CERN for the dedication and commitment they have shown to a project which is only now producing results after years of intellectual and emotional investment. And what a result: the clearest indication yet that the Higgs field exists. We now have confirmation that what we thought was true is most likely correct: there is a field everywhere in the universe which gives objects mass, slowing them down or allowing them to pass through freely. A cosmic treacle, if you will. What a feeling it must be for Peter Higgs, one of the originators of this idea, to have his theoretical speculations vindicated after so many years. Comparisons have been drawn to landing a man on the moon. For many, this is nothing less than one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

Then why am I slightly disappointed? I would rather scientists at CERN had not discovered the Higgs boson, the indicator of the this treacle, nor anything like it. I would rather have seen that the endeavours of all the men and women involved were in vain. Such a feeling doesn't stem from resentment or sadism but the desire for physics to undergo another radical overhaul.

Science is the attempt to prove other people wrong. We (or some great mind we claim as our own) do our best to devise theories to explain what's going on, then we test them to discover whether we were correct or not. In this case, Peter Higgs has been shown to be not wrong. The really interesting science starts, however, when something everyone thought must be the case is revealed as an illusion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most people thought physics was almost completed. Isaac Newton's mechanics held steady, we understood thermodynamics, and we could begin a period of mastery over nature. But when Einstein explained just what gravity was, when sub-atomic particles began appearing which completely violated everything Newton said could happen, physics had to begin all over again.

Imagine, for a moment, if the Higgs boson had not been discovered. Of course, absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, but let's suppose all our efforts suggested that such an object did not exist. What then? Momentary disappointment would quickly give way to lasting excitement. Everything we thought we knew about the basic building blocks of our world through the Standard Model would have to be rethought. The joy of intellectual endeavour generally, not just in science, comes when you undermine your assumptions and must build the tower of knowledge from the beginning on firmer foundations.

In a way, this is a disappointing result. And it could get worse. Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg said recently "I had a nightmare which is that Cern would discover the Higgs boson and then nothing else. Discovering the Higgs particle, gratifying as it is, does not provide a clue to how to go beyond the Standard Model." If it turns out that Higgs behaves exactly as we thought it would, then we are left with the same evidence and the same debates, the same Standard Model and the same arguments over its accuracy.

There is some hope for those like myself. The interesting discovery is not that Higgs exists, but what properties it has. That question is still an open one. Let's hope that it gives us something nobody expected. 


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