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Higgs: its cultural significance

4 photos of a man walking through CERN's underground tunnel

Gianni Motti, Walking for Arts Sake, 2005. Artist Gianni Motti walks the 27 km underground ring at CERN.

“If we combine the Z-Z and the Gamma-Gamma,this is what we get: they line up extremely well, and in the region of 125 GeV. They combine to give us a significance of five standard deviations.”
– Joe Incandela, CMS spokesman, 4 July 2012

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
– Stephen Crane, poet (1871-1900)

The excitement in the physics world about CERN’s discovery of a Higgs boson is still intense. But what is its cultural significance?

I’ll start briefly with science itself, but in a historical context. The quest to understand what matter is made of is ancient. In 5BC, a philosopher called Democritus suggested that if you keep dividing an object, eventually you would come to the smallest unit of stuff that couldn’t be divided. He called this unit an “atom”. The ancient Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools in India also developed theories of atomism and how atoms combined into more complex objects. In Islamic Asharite atomism, atoms are the only perpetual, material things in existence, and all else in the world is “accidental”, meaning something that lasts for only an instant. During the 19th century, scientists discovered the atom, particularly through the work of John Dalton, but soon realised that the atom was made up from smaller particles: a nucleus of protons and neutrons with electrons around it. Scientists continued trying to find out what atoms were made of by smashing up protons, but instead of making things simpler, they uncovered many different sub-atomic particles, which were labeled the “particle zoo”.

Many great scientists applied their minds to understanding how these particles interact with each other. During the 20th Century, scientists developed a theory to explain how all these particles behave called the standard model of quantum mechanics, an immensely powerful model which has enabled scientists to relate all the other forces of nature under a common set of equations. But the model couldn’t explain how particles acquired mass, without which the universe would fly apart. A theoretical model proposed in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs, called the Higgs mechanism, explained how fundamental particles acquire mass. In Higgs’ model, as elementary particles pass through a field called a Higgs field, they acquire mass (the Higgs boson is the particle of the Higgs field). Here’s a simple explanation of the Higgs boson.

The search for Higgs became the Holy Grail of physics. It has gone on for decades, in the Tetravon, Illinois, USA, and then – after the US cancelled its Superconducting Super Collider – at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Finding it finally confirms a vital part of the standard model of particle physics, and opens up fascinating new arenas for physicists to explore.

Does the discovery of Higgs validate “Big Science”? Big Science is a term coined to describe the large-scale scientific projects, which emerged after the Second World War, funded by national governments or groups of governments. This way of doing science has often been criticized for elitism and for undermining the scientific method (difficult to replicate and validate findings), as well as for the enormous amount of funds they need – and the sources of those funds, often military or tied to commercial interests, which also affect the objectivity of science. However, CERN has been careful to validate its findings, with separate experimental teams and equipment running in the facility. But the emergence of Big Science is in itself a cultural phenomena in modern society. They are often staggering feats of engineering. Alvin Weinberg and others have argued that it is one of the wonders of the modern age:

“When history looks at the 20th century, she will see science and technology as its theme; she will find in the monuments of Big Science—the huge rockets, the high-energy accelerators, the high-flux research reactors—symbols of our time just as surely as she finds in Notre Dame a symbol of the Middle Ages. … We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth.” – Alvin Weinberg

Inside of a vast neutrino detector with tiny boat at bottom. Artwork by Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, Kamiokande (2007), detector tank at Super-Kamioka Nucleon Decay Experiments, underground neutrino observatory, Japan

There may, of course, ultimately be practical benefits from this discovery. New physics invariably leads to understanding previously unknown phenomena, and to new potential technological applications. Without the understanding enabled by quantum mechanics, for example, there would be no transistors, and hence no personal computers and no lasers (although the scientists who developed quantum mechanics weren’t trying to make anything, simply trying to understand how atoms behave).

More than anything, however,for me Higgs represents a story of human curiosity, on an international scale and over a duration that has rarely – if ever – been matched. It is a remarkable expression of the human aspiration to find stuff out, which is an almost spiritual commitment by our species. And although the vastness and complexity of the universe may remind us of our insignificance, at the same time we should be astonished that we are even aware of the universe’s scale and complexity, and grateful to those physicists who have revealed some of its extraordinary workings.

It is worth remembering at the same time that science cannot answer all questions, and that curiosity takes many forms. Semiconductor’s delightful film “Do You Think Science …?” (2006) reveals that many (though not all) scientists realise that their work is not designed to understand everything. There are many questions that need different forms of investigation, to which we can all contribute: Why do human beings sometimes behave so appallingly; how do we decide how they should behave; how can we deal with mental turmoil? These are questions that science cannot tackle.

The Higgs boson may explain how the universe is glued together, but the significance of the discovery – after decades of dedicated searching by many scientists – should be to remind us to remain curious, to keep asking questions, and that astonishing things are achievable …

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