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Higgs Boson Research: Testament to the Power—or the Crudeness—of the Human Mind?

The recent announcement that scientists found evidence consistent with the existence of the Higgs boson (a type of particle thought to give mass to other particles) is a testament to the efficacy of the human mind to discover the nature of reality. Why, then, do some describe the discovery in the language of mystics or claim it shows the feebleness of human reason?

Physicist Leon Lederman first called the Higgs boson the “God particle,” and now that phrase shows up in practically every media account of the discovery. But the particle, should continuing research demonstrate definitively that it exists, is not some mystical, supernatural force, but rather a part of the natural world, governed by natural laws. People study it, not by praying or receiving mystical “insight,” but by observing reality and drawing logical conclusions based on those observations.

Thankfully, one of the lead scientists behind the work, Fabiola Gianotti, did not thank God for the discovery or pretend the particle is mystical. Instead he said, “Thanks, nature!”

But at least scientists who loosely refer to the Higgs boson as the “God particle” do not really mean it has anything to do with a supernatural man in the sky. When journalist Robert Wright proclaims in The Atlantic that the discovery—because difficult to understand—demonstrates that “the human brain . . . is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty crude instrument,” he means to be taken literally and seriously.

Wright thus ignores the heroic thought and achievement of the thousands of scientists involved in creating the collider and mining the data it offers, and he disparages the human capacity of reason as such.

No doubt the theory behind the Higgs boson is complex and largely beyond the understanding of many laymen, myself included. But that is the case with any new scientific discovery. When Galileo described the earth’s orbit around the sun, when Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek observed microorganisms, when Newton described the nature of the force holding us on the ground and keeping celestial bodies in orbit, when Benjamin Franklin explained the relationship between lightning and electricity, these discoveries too seemed strange and incomprehensible to many laymen. But, far from showing that “the human brain . . . [is] a pretty crude instrument,” these advances demonstrated the glorious power of the human mind. The same can be said of the research revolving around the Higgs boson.

Consider the magnificence of the collider itself (putting aside for now issues of how it was funded). A release from the Weizmann Institute explains:

In the effort to discover the Higgs boson, unify the fundamental forces and understand the origin of mass in the universe, scientists built the world’s largest machine: a particle accelerator nestled in a 27-km-long circular tunnel, 100 meters beneath the border between France and Switzerland, in the European particle physics laboratory, CERN [the European Center for Nuclear Research], near Geneva.

This accelerator, called LHC (Large Hadron Collider), accelerates beams of protons up to 99.999998% the speed of light. According to the theory of relativity, this increases their mass by 7,500 times that of their normal resting mass.

The accelerator aims the beams straight at each other, causing collisions that release so much energy, the protons themselves explode.

What is crude here: Is it the brains capable of conceiving and producing such a machine, or is it the brains that refuse to recognize the power of the human mind on display in such advances?

We who recognize the awesome power of the human mind can add a second, and more important, word of thanks to join that of Gianotti: “Thanks, men of the mind!”

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Image: CERN

Posted in: Science and Technology

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Anonymous

    Fabiola Gianotti, the italian scientist, is a woman — still, she is a man of the mind.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/L33DE3KWWLASUHEG7VFGU34OFQ Mooby

    Ari Wrote “Consider the magnificence of the collider itself
    (putting aside for now issues of how it was funded).” 

    Ari, you cannot simply put aside the funding. For now or
    later. 

    Mankind’s existence is infinite.  We will always look farther into space, matter, human body, etc… After this Higgs Boson, there will be yet another smaller particle to find. It will never end.

    How these findings benefit humanity and how they are funded is the most important part. If there is no benefit (payback), then you can consider this LHC just 1 more example of wealth transfer. This time to academia.

    Now that the Central Bank is bailing out Europe, the LHC
    funding is of greater importance.

    To date, the LHC has benefited making exactly zero, well
    except the bank accounts of academia.

     

    The direct total LHC project cost is £2.6bn, made up of:

    •the collider (£2.1bn)

    •the detectors (£575m)

    The total cost is shared mainly by CERN’s 20 Member States,
    with significant contributions from the six observer nations.

    The UK pays ~£95m per year as our annual subscription to
    CERN.

  • http://barebrush.com/ Ilene Skeen

    The particle probably exists, but if you read the description of the theory of the particle, you will find that it cannot possibly exist as described. Logically it is not possible for a “particle” to “get mass” from other particles. It is also not probable for a particle to be unmoving. However, just taking these two traits make the math easier, or as the physicists say, “elegant.” The Higgs Boson particle, conveniently nicknamed the “God” particle, is a dead end for physics. How are they defining its properties? Anything which has the properties described by the equations is the Higgs. So the argument is circular.

    There is no reason (except fraud) why advanced physics must be forever beyond the ken of normal, intelligent people.The entire history of science has
    been a discovery of smaller and smaller entities moving faster and faster within their sphere of movement. From solids to liquids to gases to molecules to atoms to sub-atomic particles to quarks. Why would this particle be unmoving with no mass (except what it “gets” from other particles as a “condensate”)? The answer is simple: the equations would not work otherwise.

    I think you need to check your premises — the Higgs Boson is not designed to further knowledge, but to stop it. Even if the particle exists, the mathematics which are said to control its identity will prevent anyone from actually understanding what it is.

    Why does it have to be unmoving? Because logic and the history of science implies that if it were moving, it would have to be moving faster than the speed of light — and quantum theory has “declared” for almost a century that faster than light speed is impossible. So to save one theory, the physicists have concocted an more elaborate one, tied it to a mystical being (while denying that the tie is intentional). It may not be intentional, but it sure is convenient. Now if government spending for physics has to be cut, it is no matter — we’ve found the God particle, so this is the end of the road.

    Before the Model T Ford, it was common knowledge that “your blood would freeze in your body” if you traveled faster than 20 mph. Now it is “received
    wisdom” that both faster than light speed is impossible (or) time travel (going backwards or forwards in time) is possible. Both of these notions are bunk. The experiments which showed time slowing down are so primitively unscientific as to be laughable, so the upshot is that most people think that faster than light
    travel is impossible by the nature of existence.

    I know that you eschew a closer relationship between Objectivism and science, but if the scientific theory defies logic and is constructed to prevent truly independent research, it is bunk, and Objectivists should be careful of endorsing it.

    There is no doubt that they found something, just like there is no doubt that quantum mechanics works, even though quantum theory is rot. Objectivists would be wiser if they would pay more attention to these anomalies. Kantianism is all over every area of learning and physics is no exception.