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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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.