[ASC-list] After Higgs ... XKCD!

Rob Morrison rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Fri Jul 13 01:57:57 UTC 2012

Well put... at least it seems to have escaped being called a "Breakthrough," of "Cutting-edge" research, although Heaven knows how it managed to dodge these cliches of science reporting. 

Dr Rob Morrison
rob.morrison at flinders.edu.au
Phone: (08) 8339 3790
Fax: (08)8339 6272
From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au [asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of David Ellyard [david at davidellyard.com]
Sent: Thursday, 12 July 2012 5:50 PM
To: 'Charles Willock'; asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] After Higgs ... XKCD!


I accept that Charles is being humorous, but there has really been too much
fuss about the "Higgs" (and I am a physicist at heart!!). To a great extent
we are to blame.  No one has really done a good job in explaining what, if
anything, has been "found" and how it was done, other than by quoting the
mind- bending statistics about the Large Hadron Collider (it is a very
impressive machine of course and well worth our acclaim for that alone).

I think it is even-handed to say that we have not "found" the Higgs boson.
We have rather a number of observations which can be explained by
hypothesising that that a particle similar to that proposed by Peter Higgs
50 years ago "exists".  But that  only one explanation  and other
explanations are possible, and it is not yet clear (it is very early days
after all) that the hypothesised origin of these observation matched what
Higgs envisaged.

It is clear that that these recent events are being used to boost the
profile of science, to get space in the papers and time on the airwaves,
even though our best communicators struggle to explain what the discovery
tells us , and more profoundly, what it will mean for our daily lives. The
answer to the latter is, most likely, nothing.

 It is like making a big noise over finding that the universe is flat, or
that maybe a particle can travel faster than light (it proved not so of
course). Or what might happen a trillion years into the future,   in the
hope of drawing  in the scientifically-illiterate populace. It reinforces
the image that science (particularly physical science)  is arcane and
generally incomprehensible, yet still somehow "important".

Along the way we have allowed the mixing of the scientific and the
theological, by having the media quote the "God particle" moniker without
serious challenge. We also read that this discovery has been equated with
the greatest achievements of Newton and Einstein (being the two physicists
who come most readily to mind). I might ask who has made such comparisons;
certainly no-one with  any  realistic overview of the progress of science.

I do not dispute the quality of the work done at CERN, or the legitimate
excitement it has generated  or the importance of seeking to answer the most
fundamental questions. But we must not forget that all scientific knowledge
is fragmentary and ephemeral, constantly open to well-founded challenge.
There are no final answers. The real value of science lies  in the everyday,
in helping us see the likely consequences of our actions. If the frenzy over
the Higgs helps project that purpose for science, then well and good. But I
doubt that it does.

David Ellyard

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