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Higgs

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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