Dec 13 2011

The Peevish Physicist

This post is about the strong possibility of the discovery of the Higgs particle, if you want a more adulatory report on the (nearly) discovery of the Higgs boson you can try here in The Guardian or here, at Nature or just about anywhere else for that matter.

I suspect what has me riled is that it’s frequently said that “physicists” will be very excited about this and it will open up new research – actually it isn’t true: particle physicists will be very excited – many other physicists, not so much. I even heard someone saying on the news that it was ok, there was still more for physicists to do, forgetting the rest of the field entirely. You can see what the rest of physics gets up to in the American Institute of Physics Classification Scheme, PACS. You can see what sort of physicist I am, aside from peevish, here.

It’s also driven by the suspicion that the particle crowd don’t really consider the rest of us to be proper physicists, Rutherford said a long time ago:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting

This attitude maintains, you’ll hear plenty of physicists expressing it, including A Famous One and I can never help thinking that what they really mean by physics is “particle physics”. There are hints of this around the physics departments I know, that feeling of being looked down upon for bringing in industrial funding and working on things which fit in a modest size lab.

The rest of physics will go on entirely as before, we know what the masses of the fundamental particles are and we can make use of them in our calculations, regardless of how we know that mass. The discovery of the Higgs boson would confirm a proposed mechanism as to how particles got their mass.

Impact is a big deal for scientists these days, and CERN pays some lip service to satisfying this demand. The wordwide web is often used as an example, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of this claim. The web we see has many foundations, some such as the proto-hypertext systems stretching back to the end of the Second World War, network protocols from the seventies and Standard General Markup Language from the eighties. What CERN had was a load of computers on a network with a computer savvy audience who wanted to share quite a lot of information at just the right time. This evening there were slightly wild claims for improved medical imaging and mobile phones…

In truth I suspect CERN is worth the money for the boost it gives to the high tech industries that service its exotic needs, and the PhD students and postdocs it spits out.

Bonus Peeve

“God particle”?!


1 ping

  1. Michael

    Stylish peeve.

    If there is a God particle, there must be a Satan particle: The Hogg’s bison?

    1. Ian

      I almost forgot my God Particle peeve ;-)

      I think it may have been coined by Leon Lederman (Nobel Physics Prize winner) in ~1993, it’s possible it was knocking around before then.

  2. Ian

    Reminds me a little of this XKCD Purity

    (Being a bit of markup geek I’ll point out that the origins of HTML actually go back to the 60’s and GML which came out of IBM – I’ll stop there before I become boring on the subject :-) )

    1. Ian

      Yes, I did think of the XKCD cartoon.

      I have been out-geeked ;-)

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