The Higgs Boson – Was it worth the money?

There has been a lot of talk lately about the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson – a particle whose existence was predicted by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and is thought to be what gives everything mass. Its discovery is quite a big deal in the physics community with even its predicted existence causing much controversy in recent years. But, what does the proven existence of the Higgs Boson do for the everyday person? This is an important question, especially considering the total cost of its discovery – $13.25 billion
according to Forbes (! To be fair, the Higgs certainly is not the only information gained by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, but so far, it is the most ground-breaking discovery made – and one of the most anticipated in all of physics.

So taking that all into account, let’s ask the question again – Is a particle accelerator such as the LHC, which has the potential to make a discovery such as the Higgs, worth $13.25 billion dollars?? Almost 10 years ago, the US government answered this question – and their answer was a resounding no.

In 1991, the US began construction on its own particle accelerator in Texas called the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) – one which would top all others, even the LHC (in size, energy capabilities, etc.). Congress originally approved its construction with an budget of $4.4 billion. By 1993, it was very apparent that this budget would nowhere near cover the costs, and thus with a new projected cost of around $12 billion, Congress decided the money was not worth the outcome. In order to come to these decisions, scientists were called upon to speak in Congressional hearings, where both those in support and in opposition were allowed to attempt to sway Congress in their own direction. One of those to speak in the original Congressional hearing in 1986 (before any funding was allocated for the construction of the SSC) was the famous theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg. Following his Congressional testimony, a paper appeared in Nature ( transcribing a talk Weinberg gave at Cambridge regarding the issues surrounding the controversy over this particle accelerator’s construction. In his talk, Weinberg asserts that arguably the most important reason why the SSC is worth the money spent, is because particle physics is the “most fundamental” of all sciences. He claims that all science has a “sense of direction”, with “arrows” that ultimately point to a common source. This source, according to Weinberg, lies at the level of the very small, and the smallest of the small are discovered in particle accelerators such as the SSC or the LHC. Thus, since all of science naturally points toward these more and more fundamental entities, their discovery is essential to the furthering of all other scientific endeavors (even if rather indirectly).

Weinberg quotes Richard Feynman at the beginning of the article who famously said, “The philosophy of science is just about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. This may be true in many areas of everyday scientific research, but underneath of the arguments for and against the spending of billions of dollars for particle physics research is ultimately a philosophical issue (one which is brought up directly by Weinberg): Is all of science reducible? First, I must define what I mean by “reducible”. Reduction implicitly assumes that science exists in a hierarchy: biology is reducible to chemistry, chemistry to molecular physics, and molecular physics to particle physics. This is directly analogous to Weinberg’s “arrows” – if all of science is reducible, in principle, all scientific disciplines would be fully describable using particle physics. Now, this takes nothing away from the importance of maintaining different levels of analysis for everyday research. It is essential in all modes of science to take bite-sized chunks of the problem at hand and analyze just that one bite, before taking another bite and trying to connect the two. For example, the techniques of chemistry are still essential to a better understanding of chemical reaction mechanisms, but at its core, these chemical reactions are fully describable by electrostatic interactions and quantum mechanics – fundamental physics.

Weinberg, although denying being an uncompromising reductionist, states similar views to those I have just described in his Nature article. One quote from that paper along those lines is:

“No one thinks that the phenomena of phase transitions and chaos…could have been understood on the basis of atomic physics without creative new scientific ideas, but does anyone doubt that real materials exhibit these phenomena because of the properties of the particles of which the materials are composed?”

He then goes on to say that even in chemistry, although we know the properties of molecules are in principle reducible, we are simply unable to reduce them with the tools available to us at this time (computer power, etc.).

Another good quote from this paper is, “no biologist today would be content with an axiom about biological behavior that could not be imagined to have an explanation at a more fundamental level. That more fundamental level would have to be the level of physics and chemistry, and the contingency that the Earth is billions of years old. In this sense, we are all reductionists today.”

So, if we take the view that particle physics lies at the core of all sciences and is therefore the most fundamental of all of the sciences, is new research in that area worth the billions of dollars spent? Even though the general public will never really feel the impact of any of its discoveries (unlike other scientific fields, such as synthetic chemistry aimed at drug development), IF particle physics really is the core of all other science, then I would have to say yes, it is worth the billions. BUT, what if this is not the case? As hinted at in a few of my earlier posts, there is an alternative to the philosophical and practical notion of reduction in the sciences – EMERGENCE. Stay tuned, as I will discuss a few of the current thoughts on the ill-defined concept of emergence soon!

Comments, questions, or suggestions are always welcome!