Higgs Boatswain

The news is full of Higgs Bosuns. Theoretical physics predicted its existence, and now thanks to the 9 billon dollar Large Hadron Collider, physical evidence, of a sort, has been produced to confirm it. I’m not a physicist, have no training at all in physics and in fact never managed to pass high school algebra. But even admitting my vast ignorance I still think it’s reasonable to be skeptical about the Higgs Bosun and its wonderfulness.

It’s true, the history of science is full of people like me criticizing scientists for not producing practical results. People in the 18th criticized the study of electricity, for example, seeing it as arcane and useless. Events proved them to be grossly wrong, and they might indeed prove me to be wrong and foolish as well, and it won’t be the first time or the last. Still, several things nag me about the Higgs Bosun.

To start with, physics is a discipline in which more and more is spent to find less and less. The super collider is the biggest machine humans have ever built, and it produced the smallest thing humans have ever imagined. There’s just something off about that.1 In most realms of human life, that kind of scale imbalance signals the decadence of the form, the exhaustion of the paradigm. In my discipline, for example, someone comes up with a new thesis. Soon everyone is using it and debating it and publishing about it and dividing it into ever smaller and smaller fragments: more and more is being spent to find less and less. Then someone comes along and asks a new question, or answers the question differently, and everybody is relieved.2 Particle physics takes academic hairsplitting to entirely new levels.

I know Higgs won the Nobel prize for imagining the eponymous Bosun, but Barack Obama won a Nobel prize too, for doing nothing at all except speaking in an appealing way to a paradigm the prize committee liked. Why should I expect the physics prize to be any different?

The answer is usually that physics deals with objective reality while the Nobel peace prize deals with subjective judgments. But the Higgs Bosun is the manifestation of “the Higgs field” which is said to “permeate all space.” Hmm. Physicists also imagine something called “dark matter,” which needs to exist to confirm theory but has yet to be found. Perhaps a larger, more expensive machine? Or is it more like “aether” or “Phlogiston?”

Physics looks to me like it needs a different set of questions in the worst way, because it’s locked into this paradigm: “if we can only create ever more extreme, expensive and impossible condtions, we can use this extraordinarily elaborate and expensive equipment to produce results which confirm theory.” Once again, the historian in me is reflexively skeptical about that kind of setup. I have a lot of theories. If you give me 9 billion dollars, I’m pretty sure I could produce evidence suggesting they might be true.

Discovery isn’t cheap, it’s true. Settling the new world was incredibly expensive. Space exploration is incredibly expensive. Particle physics may indeed produce useful practical results someday, and if it does I’ll happily eat crow. But I think the argument for doubt and skepticism is pretty compelling.

 

  1. Physics nerds should also notice that the imbalance between the target and the apparatus brought to bear upon it also recalls building a death star to kill ewoks. And that effort also ended in elaborate, expensive efforts to prove a theory, in the form of the hideous, boring and brain-dead star wars prequel trilogy
  2. for an example drawn from physics, see Newton’s postulate of time as a constant, overturned by Einstein’s postulate of time as relative

5 Comments

  • You’re right, you don’t understand physics. The existance of the Higgs boson confirms that the Higgs field does exist and the Higgs mechanism is the phenomenon responsible for why particles (and collections of particles and ultimately all the matter in the universe) have mass.

    Saying that we should spend money doing basic research because we can’t think of any applications is like saying you shouldn’t start reading a book because you may not like the ending. You can’t apply knowledge before it is available to apply.

    Also: the Death Star wasn’t built to kill Ewoks. It was built to crush the Rebel Alliance and intimidate local systems into submitting to Imperial rule. Ewoks simply lived on the forest moon of Endor, a backwater part of the galaxy where the (second) Death Star was being constructed in secret. Ewoks were like Pacific Islanders in World War II. Americans and Japanese would come in with their cargo, build bases, disrupt their world, all the while being mostly indifferent to the locals.

  • Don’t you think there’s something odd about forming a theory, then spending billions of dollars specifically to produce the thing the theory imagines? That there is an element of inevitability or “always already” about that? I don’t understand physics, but I do understand the history of scientific inquiry, and the way in which a given paradigm works because it conforms to what people prefer to believe.

    As to Star Wars, think about the prequel trilogy–a huge waste of money and effort, all designed to produce the “truth” of the first movie

  • You seem to be assuming that there is only one theory and are implying that the data were manipulated to support the one theory that everyone assumed was correct. The Higgs mechanism was the simplest, most elegant explanation proposed and had the greatest favor among physicists, but it wasn’t the only possible outcome proposed. It has certainly happened before that simple, elegant theories have fallen under the weight of evidence.

    Prior to the work studying the precise distance of Type 1a supernova, the simplest explanation for the current rate of expansion of the universe was the momentum gained from inflation following the Big Bang, minus slowing due to gravity. Indeed, the point of the experiments was to determine the degree of slowing of the rate of expansion to more accurately measure the mass of the observable universe. It was totally unexpected when they discovered the rate of expansion was increasing. That completely changed the way cosmologists understood the universe in ways that are still being worked out.

    I agree that the framing of questions can whittle down the possible answers in such a way that you only see the expected answer. Science is not immune to this. But I disagree that science is particularly afflicted by this. In fact, I think science is structured to guard against this whereever possible. Well-designed experiments are intended to *disprove* hypotheses. Hypotheses are only considered robust when they survive multiple attempts to prove them *wrong*. Thinking of a clever new way to prove something wrong is more often than not rewarded within the community.

    Clearly, it doesn’t always work out in this idealized way. But if it didn’t work that way a lot of the time, I don’t think any progress would be possible. And I think progress is being made in understanding the universe.

    -Matt

  • Kraw Yoti wrote:

    I’ve got to admit I honestly thought this article was a joke of yours — and I’m not hundred per cent sure it isn’t. There are simply too many “WTF?” moments:

    1. It’s boson, not bosun — WTF?

    2. Peter Higgs hasn’t yet won any Nobel prize — WTF? No Ph.D. is required to verify that…

    3. Popular culture reference completely off-target (Death star to kill the Ewoks, WTF?)

    4. “physics deals with objec­tive real­ity” — WTF? One hundred years of post-positivist epistemology thrown away.

    5. Quote: But the Higgs Bosun is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of “the Higgs field” which is said to “per­me­ate all space.” — Exactly like photons are the manifestation of the electromagnetic field, which permeates all space. That’s not the interesting part of the Higgs’ boson theory, and is not specific to it. Thinking that that is the controversial issue is again a WTF moment.

    6: Quote: “if we can only cre­ate ever more extreme, expen­sive and impos­si­ble cond­tions, we can use this extra­or­di­nar­ily elab­o­rate and expen­sive equip­ment to pro­duce results which con­firm theory.” — That’s your paradigm not that of the physicists, WTF? the excitement would have been as high, probably even more so, had the existence of the Higgs boson been rejected experimentally. The BBC had a broadcast a few months ago in the Horizon series — maybe you can catch it on PBS — where you could clearly see that. The importance is to have indications (currently only preliminary) that it exists or that it does not exists. It’s the breaking of uncertainty that is exciting.

    I am not a historian and I had been reading with interest your other articles, but if this article here is indicative of your method and quality of intellectual enquiry, I should probably discount the value of your other articles accordingly.

  • Like Kraw, I’m wondering if you intended this as an elaborate parody of Krauthammer-like science nihilism.

    For an interesting look at technology and the creation of scientific concepts (from a philosophy of science perspective), see Ian Hacking’s The Construction of What? — it discusses both lasers (as technology) and dolomite (as a constructed concept) without going all Latour.

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