Tuesday, 3 July 2012

God's Particles

Right. Let's do some science.

In my three or so years writing this blog I've covered most topics, from politics to parenting, to music, model-making and writing.

But not science; never science. Not until now. But today, according to reports, there's something big happening. (Well, actually it's something very very small.) Soon there's going to be an announcement. Oh yes. Deep beneath the earth in a place where scientists send tiny bits of stuff around an enormous underground race track until they collide with each other at the speed of light (think stock-car racing, only faster) they've found a bit of something interesting in the wreckage. They've found a Higgs Boson. Yes, that - the famous 'God particle'.

Except they haven't, quite. Not yet.

For those of you without much of an interest in quantum mechanics, allow me to explain. Basically, physicists think the universe is made of stuff - very, very small stuff. But they can't see (or even measure or detect) some of it. They absolutely definitely know it must exist because if it doesn't then their sums don't add up. And the sums are just too beautiful to be wrong. Here's one of them:

See what I mean?

Oh well.

Basically scientists tell us that a whole load of stuff - the universe, no less - works in a particular fashion and was made a certain way without quite knowing how. They know how it ought to work; they know how it should have been made. So they invent missing bits of the theory and then go looking for them.  Like dark matter, for example. There's an awful lot more stuff in the universe than anyone can see. (The maths tells us that there must be.) So scientists just make up the missing bits to make the sums work. Hot dark matter, cold dark matter, would-you-like-fries-with-that matter; it's all the same. Like the Higgs Boson. It's theory.

And while we're on the subject of incredible scientific claims, did you know - really know - what the universe is actually made of? No?

It's string.

Yes, string.

But not the ordinary common-or-garden stuff you can buy at the Post Office. Oh no. Super string. Want to see some? Tough. You can't. Because it's too small ever to be seen by anyone with anything no matter how powerful or how many times you magnify it - so there. Yes, there. Everywhere, in fact. And everything. We're all made of the same thing: string.

Isn't that a pleasant thought for a rainy Tuesday morning?

I don't have a problems with undiscovered things and things we'll never see or hear or measure. In fact, I like the idea that's there's more in heaven and earth than we will ever know (Horatio). Keeps us - as a species - in our place, for one thing.

No. What I do get a little puzzled about is the way it's assumed that all this fantastical theorising is 'Gospel' truth without ever having anything by way of empirical proof to justify it. And that all attempts to justify it are just that - positive attempts to prove the facts rather than attempts to find flaws in the theory.

For a start that ain't the way science - as defined by generations since the Enlightenment - is supposed to work. Basically, as far as I understand it, you're meant to be trying hell-for-leather to disprove your theories, rather than build multi-billion pound particle playgrounds for them. Think double-blind trials for new medicines; deliberately keeping people in the dark about what you've after is part of the process of proving you've got it. If, indeed, you have.

Secondly, at a time when some scientists are ever more militantly anti-religion it seems not a little disingenuous to come up with your own ever-more-fantastical ideas with which to replace the creation myths of established faiths.

I mean, come on, what's harder to believe? That the whole shebang was made by the Big Man upstairs or that we're all - from stars and planets, to people - made of tiny bits of vibrating string? I know which one my money's on.

Or perhaps the news from CERN will show that God - if he exists - is actually a mathematician?


  1. As a physicist who spent twelve months analyzing data from the Tevatron - I'm struggling to resist the overwhelming urge to post an essay in response to this. However, its a commonplace and understandable perspective; given the recent trend for physicists in the media to 'dumb down' the science in an attempt to make it accessible to a wider audience (admirably so).

    It's often (maybe too often) said, that 'physics is beautiful'. After several years of studying it I'd have to agree; and like those TV physicists I want to share it with everyone else. However, even with the best intent there's no way Joe Average is going to fully appreciate the subtleties of QED, QCD and the centuries of abstract mathematics which underpin 'modern' physics.

    People with an interest in physics typically a) go to university and learn from those who know, or b) read popular science book and watch Horizon mocumentaries (yuck).

    Popular science has a very low, glass ceiling. The odd sexy buzzword splattered around to keep the reader interested: 'super-string', 'boson', 'quark', 'wave-function'. It's the road to pseudo-science and quackery. It's also the road taken by journalists - don't get me started.

    Physics even more so than other sciences (in my experience) is all about rigour. As anyone who has been to a physics lecture, talk, presentation or seminar will tell you; physicists make a sport off destroying each other's work - like you wouldn't believe.

    In conclusion - gosh this post even has structure (!). The bitter truth is that unless you are a particle physicist you almost certainly no nothing about particle physics. Let the physicists do their job and if you want to understand it - educate yourself!

    Is this arrogant and 'ivory tower'? No. It's being realistic.

    1. P.s. the blackboard pic looks more like General Relativity :).

    2. Gosh Jim, thanks... I think.

      No, seriously. I appreciate the trouble you've taken to put both myself and the record straight. Although my style might owe more to entertaining journalism than scientific rigour I can assure you, as Wittgenstein almost said 'I know, whereof I speak...'

      Otherwise (as he urged) I would stay silent.

  2. There was always a discussion whether there is one thing only or the thing made by using is different from the first thing. Now it follows that both are same. This type of conjectures are necessary for progress.

  3. Oh, this is amusing!

    I don't care about the physics behind it. I know I don't know enough about it to comment with any sense of authority. But I still love it because it shows the "age old" battle (or balance, if you prefer) between science and religion. Personally I think neither one has the full answer so I'll just go with the flow and see what feels right :)

    Incidentally, though, I'm a linguist and a self-confessed "grammar snob" and I want to correct the 'no nothing' at the end of Jim's comment - sorry Jim - as much as he wants to correct your assumptions. Not because I want to be 'arrogant' but because it just grates on a nerve that is finely tuned after years of study :) So I'd also say I love the commentary following this post too!

  4. I am in agreement with "amanda claire"'s comment above.

    Tim, I think this is a good article, and for the non physicists amongst us I think it gives a nice simple overview.

    I would like to invite Jim to come and explain Higgs Boson to a classroom of 7 year olds and see how he gets on... ;-)

    Sometimes we have to take a simple overview to things in life to get the general population (of which I am one) interested. I think Tim's blog does this whilst touching on the religious v science struggle in the process. Good stuff Tim :-)

  5. If just finding flaws in the theory was the modus operandi, surely we'd never have discovered America?

    And if finding flaws in a theory is necessary, then why wouldn't that validate science in the process of finding flaws in the theory of a big man upstairs?

  6. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Tim - Your writing is certainly entertaining! Noting the Wittgenstein quote.

    Amanada - Grammar snobbery appreciated. Can't believe I typed 'no' instead of 'know'! More haste less speed - ten press-ups for me.

    All - The simplicity of the overview is not in question. However, the accuracy is. I know this isn't meant to be rigourous - but we all have our own 'things we HAVE to correct'.

    thesinglemumadventures - I'd happily accept you're offer. Although, in my limited experience as a teacher, I've yet to encounter a seven-year-old child interested in the Higgs boson. Just as I've yet to encounter a seven-year-old demanding an explanation of neuroanatomy, the differences between 'epic' and 'epyllion', or the Treasury of Merit. Just waiting for the inevitable knock at my door... anytime now.


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