Double Helix | July 27, 2012 at 12:13 am

Why We’re Not Excited by the God Particle

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Earlier this month, perhaps the most scientifically significant discovery of the century thus far took place: scientists found the God Particle. The news was all over the Internet, television, and papers worldwide. Finding the God Particle has even been hailed as the biggest breakthrough since the discovery of DNA.

A CERN simulation of data depicting a Higgs event

Surprisingly, however, few outside scientific and scientifically-inclined circles seem truly jolted or amazed by this discovery. If this is as big a deal as DNA, why was the news so quick to fade from the public mind? The reasons are twofold: one, its name is misleading. Though the particle does explain physics as we know it, it has little to do with God. Secondly, it’s a matter of physics that isn’t immediately relevant to areas of development today. Because it will lead to no sudden advances in medicine or technology, it is difficult to convince the public of its significance.

Let’s look at the first idea: the God Particle is anything but. Despite its God-like ability to give mass to matter, its nickname has little to do with God, and is less an innocent expression of awe than an act of censorship. Leon Lederman, who originally coined the term for his book The God Particle in 1993, actually named it the “Godd**m” particle because scientists had an extremely hard time finding it. His publishers, the story goes, picked the tamer version. Though someone with little scientific or religious knowledge might have gotten the impression that by finding the particle, we had found the basis for a universe with no room for an actual God, that idea is nothing more than hollow speculation.

But despite the fact that the particle—known in less flashy circles as the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs, who proposed its existence in 1964—is not holy in any sense of the word, its discovery is nonetheless monumental in helping to uphold the Standard Model of physics. It still fails to excite the public, though, because it does not immediately catalyze discoveries that can impact our world. The discovery of the Higgs boson, which more cautious circles have yet to completely confirm, simply validates a Higgs-based model physicists have been using for a number of decades now. The model, too, is merely a proposed way of viewing things; scientists have also proposed alternative Higgs-less models in the past in case the Higgs was not found. DNA, on the other hand, was a concrete discovery that could be directly studied to facilitate breakthroughs in biology and medicine. Now that scientists claim to have found the Higgs, all they can do is make sure they really have found it before delving into further theoretical research that leads to no immediate contribution to mankind.

But before I get a lot of flak for a seemingly anti-scientific attitude towards the Higgs, bear in mind that I am trying to explain public sentiment about the exciting discovery. The “so what?” question has been hard for Higgs experts to answer. But the truth is, it is hard to get the public excited by what seems like obscure “ivory tower” science that is expensive and hard to immediately justify (the “for knowledge!” argument only goes so far). This can be seen with the regular desire to slash NASA funding, despite the many advances its research has provided us. And the American people have expressed extreme disdain for investing in the necessary infrastructure to find the Higgs themselves.

Many will remember the controversy in the 1990s over the possible construction of an American superconducting supercollider that would do much of the work CERN has managed to do with its Large Hadron Collider more recently. On top of that, the American Fermilab’s Tevatron (a similar facility) was shut down in 2011. But though an American discovery of the Higgs would have been extremely significant for the scientific community, I am not so sure it would be that much of a reason for national pride. The Higgs particle, as I’ve tried to explain, is not exactly energizing to a public who does not understand it or its discovery’s implications. Because of this, despite its importance for physics, Americans did not miss their chance when it came to finding the Higgs. Even if this statement makes you pause, it is still a truth: if the public does not see its tax dollars being put to visible good use, it is not inclined to spend them. Physics, unlike direct progress in technology and medicine, just does not provide the public with the immediate gratification it seeks.

 

Photo Credit: CERN via Wikimedia Commons

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