The Higgs boson is science's royal wedding

All this Higgsteria just demonstrates that we're now at the end of the age of physics.

A team of jigsaw enthusiasts will announce today that they have found an object that may be a piece missing from a puzzle they have known to be incomplete since the 1960s. While the team is understandably excited, they remain cautious. “All we can say at this point in time is that it is a puzzle piece,” said a spokesman for the group. “We have not yet been able to confirm that it is from the incomplete jigsaw.”

Further analysis will be necessary before the discovery of the missing piece can be confirmed. If the piece turns out not to be the one that has been missing, then “that’s even more exciting,” according to the spokesman. “It would mean there is a whole other incomplete jigsaw that we didn’t know was there.”

There has been feverish speculation about what the completed jigsaw will look like. A rival team has tried to undermine the excitement by pointing out that we have been in possession of the jigsaw’s box for half a century, and the completed jigsaw is almost certain to look like the picture on the front of the box.

The team are dismissive of such comments. “That doesn’t negate the enormous achievement of the people who worked so hard to find this missing piece,” the spokesman said. “The fact is, we may now be able to complete this jigsaw and move onto the next one. If that isn’t cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.”

As this little vignette demonstrates, we are in the last, desperate gasp of particle physics. The subject has been dominant in science – in terms of access to funding – since the end of the Second World War, when particle accelerators promised to unlock further secrets of the atom and build on the gains of the bomb that won the allies the war. Though our understanding of matter has deepened, that promise has not really been fulfilled. Daniel Sarewitz of Colorado University has declared that the diminishing returns of the subject mean that we are at “the end of the age of physics”.

Sarewitz has been accused of being “anti-science” because of this viewpoint, but the opposite is true. Today’s hysteria over the Higgs boson – a carbon copy of the Higgsteria whipped up by Cern last summer – is only superficially good for science. In the end, it distracts attention from more pressing, and perhaps more impressive, research. Other announcements today include the discovery that plastic pollution on the northwest coast of America is now as bad as in the notoriously polluted North Sea; that a pregnancy and live birth are possible from frozen ovarian tissue (meaning that a woman’s fertility can be preserved indefinitely); that the genome of an unborn baby can be sequenced using only a blood sample from its mother, opening the way for important tests. All of these can be viewed as just as important as the discovery (or not) of the Higgs boson. But they won’t get anywhere near the attention.

Particle physicists will enjoy the limelight today, and declare that it’s not their fault everyone is so excited.  But that’s rather like the British royal family disowning any responsibility for generating excitement about last year’s royal wedding.

And let’s be clear: today’s announcement at Cern – whatever it is – is the scientific equivalent of a royal wedding. It is significant for those involved in the proceedings; cheering, screaming spectators, though, have participated in an enjoyable but irrational frenzy. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, the republicans of science are quietly plotting particle physics’s demise.

America has refused to build any more particle accelerators. It seems unlikely that Europe will see the point of building anything much bigger than the LHC. Genomics, neuroscience, graphene, chemical synthesis and other smaller-scale endeavours will now quietly soak up science’s diminishing pot of money. Physicists working with what are known as quantum critical crystals claim they can do much of what happens in a huge atom-smasher. Enjoy the final moments, the rousing chorus; the era of scientific pomp and circumstance is almost done.

 

This royal wedding-esque era of scientific pomp and circumstance is almost done. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”