I was super excited to read the announcement by CERN today that the ATLAS and CMS experiments have yielded enough evidence for them to claim the discovery of the Higgs boson. Not only am I excited about the confirmation of the Standard Model, and the possibilities for further discoveries, but also because this discovery illustrates the scientific process beautifully.
As a skeptical activist I am often dismayed at the claims made by pseudo-scientists and quacks in the “Alternative” medicine industry. These people claim, in one way or another, that:
- Science can’t be applied to their special brand of nonsense.
- Science is a grand conspiracy.
- They have the evidence (but when independently tested it disintegrates)
The astrologers and homeopaths of the world want to enjoy the benefits of being scientifically proven without going through any of the tiresome business of actual testing. While groups like the AIDS deniers want you to believe that all scientists are evil and are trying to deceive you for their own dastardly ends.
The discovery of the Higgs is a wonderful opportunity for scientists and science advocates, like myself, to point out how science actually works. Observe:
How Science Works
1. Physicists look at the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics and they notice that something is missing. The SM is important because it explains how the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces interact, and enumerates the particles that carry those forces. The SM is known as the Theory of Almost Everything because, while it explains a great deal about the universe, it has some rather glaring blind spots. One of those blind spots was the force that imparts mass to matter, the Higgs field, and the particle that carries it, the Higgs boson (video).
2. A whole bunch of really bright physicists sit down with pens and papers (I know! That’s how they did it in the old days!) and do a lot of complicated maths until they find a sum that works, one that gives a sensible answer. That’s exactly what Peter Higgs (pictured), and five other physicists, did in 1964.
This one field, and it’s carrier-particle, were proposed by three separate teams almost simultaneously.
Did any of these groups steal ideas from the others? No. Sometimes this is how great discoveries are made. It’s like the foundations have been laid and anybody can study them and test them, and everybody who has the urge to does. And because the knowledge is open and the phenomenon exists, multiple smart people figure it out at the same time. The same thing happened with the telescope.
3. All the bright guys and girls sit down with their pens and papers and brainstorm the best way to test the sums that worked in step 2. They do the maths, they think of ways to use physics to find the real-world examples.
That’s where the particle colliders step in. These beasts accelerate atoms to unbelievable speeds, ram them into each other and take pictures of the particles that erupt from these collisions. Then a bunch of other clever people look at the collision photographs and try to work out what particles were emitted by the collision.
Because the Higgs boson was suspected of having a large mass, somebody had to build a particle collider which used gigantic, enormous, magnificent amounts of power. So they made the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. This puppy still isn’t operating at maximum capacity, what will they discover when they crank her up to 11?
If the no good results outnumber the good results by a statistically significant margin, the hypothesis can be considered disproven and the physicists have to get out their pens and start doing sums again.
If the good results start to pile up, over flow the shallow sides of the tray, spill out onto the desk and begin to slosh up against the wall, the physicists can start to feel confident that they might have found something.
In the case of the Higgs, Cern made a tentative announcement in December 2011 that something exciting was showing up in their data, but that more data was necessary before they could claim a discovery.
5. There’s no denying it, the weight of evidence is undeniable, cautiously call a worldwide, real-time press conference and announce the discovery!
That’s it, after decades of hard work and the collaboration of thousands of brilliant minds, we have discovered the little particle that carries the field that imparts mass to all the visible (baryonic) matter in the universe!
This is amazing, it is wonderful, it is one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the past 100 years and you are alive to see it happen. Relax for a moment and revel in the joy of discovery, the heady release of true understanding.
Now, think about those people who want to appear to have scientific credibility but are unwilling and unable to get it, because the ideas they are promoting have no valid scientific mechanism. Homeopathy, acupuncture, psychics, astrologers, those fraudsters who sold half the world a little rubber band with a hologram on it.
Think about the weight of evidence and the amazing human endeavour required to positively claim a ground breaking discovery. Each of those fields I listed in the previous paragraph would require a breakthrough MORE ASTOUNDING than the discovery of the Higgs boson, because each of them breaks the rules of physics in at least one way.
Until they have the evidence, it’s just not science.