A particle-shaped technicolour dreamcoat

How appropriate for the season of death and rebirth. Lovers of mystery had been left disconsolate after Nasa confirmed that a couple of its errant spacecraft had not uncovered a new "dark energy" or "force of nature" as previously mooted. But reassuringly, within a few days, particle physicists had put up their hands to say they were investigating a teasing hint from their experiments with atom-smashers that "technicolour", a "new force of nature", might exist.

The force that is no longer with us never even got a name. It was no more than a hypothesis that would have solved an anomaly in the trajectories of two spacecraft, Pioneers 10 and 11. They were launched in the early 1970s. Then, about ten years later, researchers began to notice they were drifting ever so slightly off course. Various excited explanations were offered, one of which was that a hitherto undiscovered force was at work in the universe, pulling on the vessels. Another was that there was an unaccounted-for source of heat on the Pioneer probes.

New calculations, taking into account the heat source and the geometry of the Pioneer probes, suggest that just about the dullest answer is almost certainly the explanation: researchers in Portugal say the heat emitted from the craft does not radiate evenly, and is enough to affect their course. One of the longest-running mysteries in science has been resolved with an explanation akin to saying that Nasa forgot to turn off the probes' courtesy light.

Thankfully, we now have the technicolour force. This putative discovery was made at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. Smashing together matter and antimatter, Fermi's physicists appear to have produced a trail of particles that really ought not to be there.

The only explanation, it seems (again), is that there is a new force in play. The existence of said force was suggested about 20 years ago as a possible way to generate mass.

Technicolour makes the search for the Higgs boson, our best guess at the source of mass, entirely pointless. Such a discovery would be a physicist's dream - and would come with a guaranteed Nobel Prize.

Data hunt

At present, there is a one-in-1,000 chance that the trail of particles was just a fluke with absolutely no significance. It will be classed as a discovery only if the Fermi researchers can find enough evidence in their unexamined mountains of data to reduce the chance of coincidence to one in a million.

At the risk of putting a downer on things, it is worth noting that the sheer volume of data coming out of our particle accelerators makes false alarms far more likely than you might think.

Given any set of data, you need only look for confirmation of a few dozen theories before you will find one that fits the evidence. It doesn't make that one theory right, any more than mentioning someone's name in conversation just before they happen to call your phone makes you psychic.

But, with the Pioneer anomaly gone, let's hope this technicolour idea works out. When you've been defeated so crushingly by the mundane, any dream will do.

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 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.