Higgs discovery a victory for endeavour of science

It might not seem like it to many, but the seeming discovery of the Higgs Boson is a shining example of the triumph of the scientific method.

It was only in 1897 that J.J. Thomson discovered electrons. That in itself was an amazing achievement because it gave us the missing piece required to harness electricity on a new level. Computer technology could not have advanced without knowing intimately how electrical current flows and circuits work.

That discovery was 115 years ago. Since then, scientific research into the nature of atoms and associated physical properties (electromagnetism, the photoelectric effect, quantum effects…) has accelerated at an incredible rate. We’ve split the atom and, while that knowledge was co-opted to support the worst of human traits (war and hatred), we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to better our lot.

Fast forward to today, we find ourselves on the brink (not there just yet) of a monumental discovery that stands atop that massive mountain of 115 years of scientific progress. It seems we have discovered the elusive particle — theorised by Peter Higgs in the 1960s — that fleshes out some missing pieces in the standard model of particle physics.

For more on the Higgs Boson, read about it at the CERN website.

Despite the fact that science at this level is a bit abstract, even to those who study particle physics, the real message in the discovery of the Higgs Boson is the triumph of the scientific endeavour.

Modelling – the essence of science

As mentioned, Peter Higgs predicted that this particle must exist in order to flesh out the standard model of particle physics back in the 60s. But what do we mean by “model” and why is it important?

Science is really about model building — data is collected and a model constructed to explain the data. The model is then used to make predictions about future as yet unobserved phenomenon. New experiments are built from these predictions.

A robust model — one that maps very precisely to reality will survive this testing process intact and strengthened by the fact the predictions were validated.

But to be a scientifically valid prediction it must be risky. This is one variable that separates science from pseudoscience. The Higgs Boson was a risky prediction — the prediction carried with it a precise energy level in which it could exist.

The standard model now explains a great deal with a stunning level of precision. It doesn’t explain everything we see and therefore pieces are missing. Scientists thrive on this mystery (it gives them a job after all). They continue to chip away at the coalface in order to develop more accurate models for what we observe.

certainty And uncertainty

LHC collision.

A typical candidate event including two high-energy photons whose energy (depicted by red towers) is measured in the CMS electromagnetic calorimeter. The yellow lines are the measured tracks of other particles produced in the collision. The pale blue volume shows the CMS crystal calorimeter barrel.

Certainty in science is taken very seriously — in fact it is another variable that separates science from pseudoscience and mere speculation.

The precision required to measure particles that are in existence for fractions of a second is astonishing. The level of certainty can therefore be calculated to many decimal places.

At this early stage — just days after the CERN announcement — scientists are being very careful about what this discovery means. Certainty is prized in science and assigning certainty to a proposition is taken very seriously.

As an example, here are some of the quotes scientists have made regarding the recent Higgs Boson announcement:

  • “I can confirm that a particle has been discovered that is consistent with the Higgs boson theory.”
  • The result is still preliminary, but “it’s very strong and very solid”.

Much like the seeming “faster than light neutrinos” finding from CERN last year, scientists are skeptical and will look at the data every which way they can to propose new experiments and collect new data. The discovery of a new fundamental particle is very rare — especially particles theorised 45 years ago.

Leave “God” out of this

It is profoundly annoying and frustrating to see the media latch so firmly on to the “God Particle” meme. It makes a good soundbite, probably pisses of scientists and religious folk and serves no real purpose in educating people about particle physics and the significance of this new discovery.

It isn’t surprising that the media hook into the inherent controversial element to a scientific discovery that will change the way we view reality.

Conclusion

Let’s look at this discovery for what it is — a monumental discovery; a giant leap forward in our understanding of the fabric that makes up our universe. Another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of reality and another chunk taken out of our collective ignorance. These are all good things.

Many people have claimed that the Large Hadron Collider is an unjustified expense; that we are better off putting those billions of dollars towards more worthy causes.

But science is about the triumph of human curiosity, intelligence and desire to better our existence. This latest discovery, Higgs Boson or otherwise, justifies the expense many times over.

Doing basic science and answering fundamental scientific questions always leads to leaps forward as a species. Who knows how much this new discovery will lead to our collective human progress?

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