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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.