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

Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile