Sunday, September 14, 2008

why the large hadron collider will find the Higgs boson

The last time I had a jar with Professor Calculus, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN had just been fired for the first time. Given that the world had obstinately refused to end in the face of hysterical objections by the sort of people who become amorous about trees, I put it to him that either the world had not ended, or it had done so and I was, in fact, a figment of his imagination, therefore mine's was a pint. He didn't see my reasoning. Sometimes scientists just don't get it.

The somewhat histrionic coverage of the opening of the Large Hadron collider seems to be in measure with the epithet given to its chosen prey, the hypothetical Higgs boson: the God particle. This has even, in recent times, leaked into popular culture in the remake - starring George Clooney - of the Russian film Solaris, where ghosts are sent to wherever ghosts go when they're killed by a "Higgs beam". In reality, the Higgs boson, if it exists, is estimated to exist for a fraction of a fraction of a second, so it's difficult to imagine it getting up to any of the activities predicated of various deities by different cultures.

The Large Hadron Collider cost around £4.4 billion ($7.8 billion) to build. Many countries have contributed to it - for example, the US gave $531 million (£300 million), Spain €55 million (£44 million/$77 million) and Japan ¥5 billion (£26 million/$47 million); the UK gives CERN £70 million($124 million) per year.

It's difficult to imagine these countries donating such significant sums through the goodness of their rulers' hearts; especially as, in the case of Great Britain, there were 25,700 "excess winter fuel deaths" due to people not being able to heat their houses at the same time as buying food.

On the other hand, perhaps it's exactly the point that our countries are contributing to CERN while older people die. It's not a new phenomenon - in the Who's 1973 album Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend writes in Helpless Dancer: "people die because they're old/or left alone because they're cold".

Steven Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, made a rather strange statement recently:

Both the LHC and the Space program are vital if the human race is not to stultify and eventually die out. Together they cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race can not afford this, then it doesn't deserve the epithet 'human'.
As much as I'm an admirer of Professor Hawking, who exemplifies the great potential of people who, like myself, have a disability, I have to to admit to being a bit put out by this statement. Is he saying it's worth spending up to $6.5 trillion (£3.6 trillion - 10% of world GDP) on research into sub-atomic particles and interstellar peripateticism? If he, and anybody else, thinks this way, I recommend a swift dose of Gattaca, the 1997 film starring Uma Thurman and Jude Law which presents a society driven by eugenics wherein engineered humans are free to leave the planet, and the rest are cleaners. (There's a cool twist - check out the film.)

The thing is, unfortunately, there has been a tendency to believe that some people are worth more than others, which in the middle of the 19th century acquired a sheen of respectability with the publication of Darwin's evolutionary theory, incorporating the concept of the survival of the fittest into the Malthusian fable that famine and war are necessary to control population (a travesty of Darwin's concept which horrified him).

Unmasked by the Holocaust, this tendency is rising again with the tendency of scientists and writers, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, to force science onto the street-corner so that it can lead the unsuspecting curious to be shanghaied into the radical militant atheist army meretriciously peddling the idea that science is a jealous god, and will tolerate no system of belief that posits intuition inexplicable by detectable particles.

This first operation of the large hadron collider was nothing more than a booting-up, and produced a "fuzzy dot". And yet already there's a conflict, with Steven Hawking saying that the results would be more interesting if the Higgs boson weren't found than if it were, and the eponymous Professor Higgs opposing this view; probably only one of them can look forward to a Nobel prize.

The Large Hadron Collider appears to keep 6000 scientists in tea and biscuits. More than this, it is required to find the Higgs boson so that a business case can be made in 2012 for a larger collider.

I wonder how much difference there is between a fuzzy dot, and smoke and mirrors. Anyhow, there are so many careers and reputations riding on the discovery of the Higgs boson that I'm sure it will be discovered, whether it exists or not.

Related post: Solaris - the boson delusion

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