They’ve only gone and bloody done it! The undefeated champion of hide and seek has finally lost his belt. Higgs boson has been found. Well, he has almost definitely been found, but let’s not quibble. CMS and ATLAS scientists at CERN are 99.999 per cent sure that they have observed the elusive God particle.* Yes, congratulations are most definitely in order. An individual fitting the description of the Higgs boson has been discovered
at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and I can only assume that the particle after-party is still going strong.
Never in the history of mankind have the words ‘five’ and ‘sigma’ resulted in such rapturous applause. And why the Higgs not? Scientists don’t usually get to kick back and celebrate, and I think that they’re being robbed of one of life’s simple pleasures.
I don’t think that it would be over-egging the pudding to say that physicists, and indeed, the scientific research community in general, were overjoyed by Wednesday’s announcement. Never in the history of mankind have the words ‘five’ and ‘sigma’ resulted in such rapturous applause. And why the Higgs not? Scientists don’t usually get to kick back and celebrate, and I think that they’re being robbed of one of life’s simple pleasures.
Sportspeople are allowed to celebrate after every moment of brilliance. Those involved in the arts enjoy lavish praise, and it would be fair to say that many of their number are not backwards in coming forwards. However, when I try to congratulate scientific interviewees on their achievements, they frequently offer modest thanks before emphasising that there is still much work to be done.
I think that this reluctance to celebrate is in part due to the fact that science is too often involved in damage limitation. Human beings perform some sort of planetary faux pas and scientists are called in to undo the damage. Climate change, food insecurity, biodiversity** – all are problems that we are simultaneously creating and asking scientists to solve. No wonder there is always much work to be done.
Perhaps this is why CERN has generated so much interest and jubilation. It is one of the best contemporary examples of positive science. This is something about which we can feel justifiably proud. Billions of euros have been invested for the sake of curiosity. Whilst the tone of this sentence might seem overtly negative, I can assure you that it is not. Curiosity is a good thing.*** Without it, we would still be sitting in caves eating lukewarm bushmeat.
Sadly, with economic austerity comes the potential for scientific short-sightedness. When cutbacks threaten the advancement of reactive research, such as that concerned with climate change and its ilk, what hope is there for curiosity? It all comes down to necessities and luxuries. Projects trying to solve the ‘grand challenges’ are necessary. If we fail to tackle these
problems, there will be nobody left to be curious. If a boson appears in a collider and there is no one around to observe it, does it really matter? In such a world, can CMS or ATLAS be seen as anything other than scientific luxuries?
Still, everybody needs a bit of luxury in their lives. How will science progress if it is only given enough money to fight fires? I think that when it comes to research, it can actually be prudent to splash out. The research conducted near Geneva has been beguiling, intriguing and as it transpires, satisfying. In short, it has been worthwhile. I just don’t want it to be remembered as Big Science’s swan song.
It isn’t my intention to scaremonger. I might be writing as though it’s all over but CERN is still very much alive and well. Why wouldn’t it be? There is still much work to be done.
* I know that some of you hate this moniker, but it’s a handy way of avoiding repetition
** Or lack thereof
*** Unless you’re a cat