Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Higgs Boson Detected!

Cross-posted at, where I will be a contributing writer.  Check it out!

At 4am Eastern Time, scientists of CERN laboratory (home of the LHC) announced the discovery of the Higgs particle at a conference in Australia.

I also got a text:

The fuckin HIGGS.

The particle that physicists have predicted would exist back in the 1960s, OVER 50 YEARS AGO.

The particle that gives mass to otherwise masseless particles.

The particle that fills a huge gap in the Standard Model - the unifying theory of the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces.

This is science: arduous, tedious, non-linear, exhaustive, incremental, and when done right, accurate.

Hypothesis, prediction, testing, replicating, replicating, replicating, replicating.....99.999% confirmation.

This is such a huge scientific discovery, I can barely find the words to express myself.  This has to be on par with the discovery of the double helix, the expanding universe, and the acceleration of the expanding universe.

And yet....

When I heard the news, I couldn't help but compare the outcomes of science to the rank stupidity of so many US citizens and leaders, particularly as articulated in the Texas GOP party platform [pdf].

You may have heard about this because it is so blatant how much contempt they have for education.  Its so bold that they don't even try to couch their intentions in bullshit euphemisms, so I can just quote directly without comment:
(W)e support reducing taxpayer funding to all levels of education institutions. (P-17)
We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. (P-12)
We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (P-12)

We oppose any sex education other than abstinence until marriage. (P-13)
We urge legislators to prohibit reproductive health care services, including counseling, referrals, and distribution of condoms and contraception through public schools. ... We oppose medical clinics on school property except higher education and health care for students without parental consent. (p-13)
And that's just a snippet of what comes from their "Educating Our Children" section.  


Back to the Higgs discovery.

Let's be honest, this cost a lot of money.  Billions.  Just for the LHC.  Never mind its predecessors or all the man hours required to refine our scientific understanding of the particle and the conditions under which it could be detected.

Is it worth it?  To me, its not even a question.  Because its not just the fact that scientists have confirmed a huge part of our understanding of how the universe works.  It goes beyond that.  This wasn't just one fact that has been confirmed, but many underlying principles are also strengthened by this work.

Some might fairly ask, 'how can this discovery economically benefit society?'

To which I respond: "I don't know.  We might not know for another 50 or 100 years.  But I wouldn't bet against it having a significant impact on everyday life."

Perhaps the easiest example of this to cite is Einstein's formulation of General Relativity in 1916, which describes the curvature of spacetime as being directly related to the energy and momentum of the matter present.

I don't know if Einstein had any particular application of General Relativity in mind, but it wasn't until the 1970s that the government began working on the Global Positioning System (GPS) - which without the understanding of General Relativity to correct for the relativistic effects of it on satellites orbiting the earth - would not work.  You couldn't use GPS.

There are surely other great examples of basic research that don't realize commercial or practical application for decades after their discovery, and maybe that will be a topic of another post.  But for me, it is the process of research, discovery, and enlightenment that holds the most value for society.

So with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, I'll close with one of my favorite quotes:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
-JFK, 1962

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