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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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times