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. 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] 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.[1. for an example drawn from physics, see Newton’s postulate of time as a constant, overturned by Einstein’s postulate of time as relative] 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.