Solve one puzzle, raise a million more questions

Allow yourself a cheer: we might have found the God particle. At the end of July, physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in Geneva gathered to dissect the results they have gathered so far. The most exciting news was that a blip in one of the detectors looked like the signature of the elusive Higgs boson particle, which is more popularly (and much less accurately) known as "the God particle".

The Higgs boson is thought to be the ultimate source of mass and explains why we are subject to gravity. It is the last piece of the puzzle in the standard model of particle physics, the most complete theory of how everything comes together to make matter.

So, when researchers from another of the detectors announced that they had seen something similar, there was still more cause for excitement - until the physicists poured rather a lot of cold water over the celebrations, that is.

First, they said, it could be a statistical blip - a chance conjunction of insignificant particles that creates the illusion of the presence of a Higgs boson. To check, the physicists are now combining the data taken by both detectors in a way that will confirm or destroy the blip. This analysis should be complete by the end of August.

Second, they have to make sure that they didn't make a mistake when they decided, years ago, what they were looking for. After a collision, the Higgs boson particle exists for only a tiny fraction of a second before it turns into an array of other particles. These are the particles that leave a trace in the detectors, and the exact recipe for that array depends on the characteristics of the Higgs boson - characteristics that we don't yet fully understand.

The final twist in the tale is that finding the Higgs boson could justifiably be viewed as a disaster. Many physicists don't want to complete the standard model, because they know it falls short. It doesn't explain, for example, why the various forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism, have the strengths they do.

Bright squark

If you want answers to such questions, you have to look to another theory, known as "supersymmetry". This says that every fundamental particle has an as-yet-undetected partner. The electron has the selectron, the quark has the squark, and so on.

The theory behind this bigger zoo of particles and sparticles gives us a much more satisfying explanation of how everything in the universe works.
Supersymmetry doesn't mesh with the standard model; only one of them can be right. The trouble is, if supersymmetry is correct, we should have seen some of its particles by now.

The LHC has been smashing particles together at ever-increasing energies and has already covered the lowest energy range where we might have expected to see the signature particles of supersymmetry.

The situation is not yet catastrophic, because there are myriad versions of supersymmetry and not all of them have been ruled out. It does make things unsatisfyingly complex, though. If we've found the Higgs boson, that's great - but it

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

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