Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Pig's Nose-on?

The news we've all been, waiting (but not praying)...for is now out, or at least the installment that says we may have found something, it may be definitive, but we need billions more to be sure because it may not.  Your life will be different now that there might, or could, possibly perhaps be a Higgs boson, that elusive thing that puts the lead in your pencil, so to speak--gives mass to fundamental particles--without which you would wither away to a mere nothing (like Higgsy hopefully won't).

Well, as the figure shows, Higglety Pigglety, it really is a mere nothing (well, near-nothing if it exists, or nothing if it doesn't).  The arrow points to the teensy, weensy, boson flying around amidst a cloud of dust particles or nuons or neutrinos, or something like that.  Now don't be cynical, and think this is just a screenshot from some video game.  Yes, it resembles the Droid logon screen, too.  But believe us, it's the real thing (if the real thing exists).

What we're seeing today is by now a standard marketing strategy: a carefully timed media announcement event.  A claim that we've now got it, the Big Finding, but it's only the beginning.  That doesn't make it a false announcement, but there is still the possibility that this is a Pig's nose-on some junk scraps rather than a Higgs boson some scraps of detector signal.  Whether this is beauty or beast only time will tell.

It's easy (and justified?) to have some fun with this long played out Lamborghini of a science story (given its cost), but it again reflects the current view that science must now address Very Big questions on a huge long-term scale.  The rationale is that small studies can't get at the complex or minute effects that we have to find in a sea of data.  Small-scale experimentation may be in order once the 'signal' is found, to understand it in detail, but the prevailing idea is that by and large the easily findable big effects are already known.  In genetics, for example, the rationale is, as well, that small effects on individuals if they're common can lead to large numbers of affecteds on a population scale (100 million people at a risk of one in 100,000 would mean 1000 individuals affected), or that some very strong effects that are so rare they could never generate statistically convincing evidence on their own might in fact be devastating to those few people that inherit them.

This is true, in theory, in physics as well. The Higgs boson affects every bit of matter, including you, your eyes reading the screen, and the screen itself.  So this is a trivially small physical effect individually but a totally profound one in the overall scheme of the cosmos.  It is claimed that (if it actually exists) it will tie together many loose threads in theoretical physics.  Lots of jobs and work to do for physicists, and maybe even stimulation for biologists to ask themselves whether there is something fundamental missing from our thinking.

Whether or when it will have any direct effect on anyone other that students in Physics classes, only the media hype-engine knows (Whether it's real or not, it may show up on their exams!).  It is edifying and elegant, as is the experiment to hunt ol' Higgsy down, if true.  For the middle class it may seem worth its cost, and it may be better than most television (and will generate countless television specials as well).  But, just as whether big genomic science is worth the cost to those billions barely scraping a living together, with less than a boson's worth to eat, is another story.

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