“the question of life’s meaning is found in the disappearance of the question”
It was while browsing the web recently that I came across a touching, and informative, obituary of the late Steve Jobs and was reminded of a fact about him that I had long since forgotten. Whether you are a devout Apple fanboim or not, many of you will be aware that the company once, very foolishly, ejected Jobs from his job as CEO during a boardroom coup in 1985 and led to him undergoing an eleven year exile from the company that he founded. His reaction to the setback was to found, and manage, a company that was to produce a classic of early desktop computing. With investment from the owner of the US IT services giant EDS, a certain Ross Perot, the new firm created the product that earned it a place in Internet history.
The company was called NeXT and its legendary NeXT workstation was one of the first to feature a mouse driven graphical operating system, object- oriented software architecture and a built-in Ethernet port to exploit the rapidly emerging Internet standard. Coming in at an eye watering $9,999, the machine was of interest only to the corporate and academic communities and several were soon procured for use by a major European research institute where a then unknown software programmer working under contract had been given a devilishly difficult problem. The institute had bought mainframe computers from four different manufacturers, but each was incompatible with the other and the sharing of important documents was difficult, if not impossible. His solution, written on a NeXT machine, was simple and elegant. Invent a common standard for displaying text, graphics and the newly invented way to connect documents together over a network – hyperlinks – and then write a separate program for each mainframe that implemented the standard. Now when a document written in the new standard was loaded into any of the machines it could be read and when displayed always looked the same – problem solved. The programmer was a man named Tim Berners-Lee and the standard he invented was, of course, Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) and is the basis for the system that we today call the World Wide Web.
By now you will have guessed that institution was (and still is) the world renowned Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) – in English, the European Council for Nuclear Research. Founded in 1952 to fund studies into the newly emerging technology of nuclear power, the research facilities, including the much written about Large Hadron Collider (LHC), are the most powerful and sophisticated in the world and are the only ones available that are capable of staging particle physics experiments requiring the wildest extremes of temperature and pressure demanded by low – level particle and quantum field research. Actually the modern name of the facility is the Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, but when the name was changed in 1954 it was decided that the acronym (OERN) was clumsy so, on the advice of legendary physicist Werner Heisenberg, they kept the old one.
Despite (or maybe because of) the public interest that seems to accompany any development at CERN, more than a few voices have pointed up the overall cost of maintaining the facility – figures north of 40bn Euros have been mentioned – there seems to be little of any obvious practical value to have come from there; the only real example being HTML, plus some seriously heavyweight computer networking and data processing facilities to analyse the reams of data produced by the experiments. In this age of economic austerity CERN’s critics are less than impressed by this – those examples were hardly the products of cutting edge research, since they were both leverages of existing technologies and you didn’t need to spend anything like 1bn Euros to get them, let alone 40; plus the very obvious point that neither have anything whatever to do with particle physics. And now we can begin to see why such a desperate spin is being put on news – any news at all – from CERN; its management are keenly aware that the facility needs to justify itself if it is to continue in existence.
So it is then that some of the recent reports emerging from the institution have been greeted with more than the usual flurry of media interest; the news items on the BBC featuring the usual device of wheeling out the youf-friendly Dr Brian Cox to speak in hushed reverential tones, as if discussing the Turin shroud, with phrases like “unlocking the secrets of the Universe”. Setting aside such overtones of secular religion, which one assumes media companies and publishers of books on popular science believe is essential to engage the interest of the public on any science matter, there is in fact a science story of genuine interest there.
There have been headlines trumpeting the imminent discovery of the so-called Higgs Boson, a long sought after element of an important theoretical structure known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This, like any other working scientific model, is really just nothing more than a set of related rules and quantities that are intended to describe the behaviour and properties of all the particles and fields described by our current theories of the sub-atomic world; the idea being that it should be possible to take data, such as lab experimental results or real-world observations, and feed them into the model to make (or confirm) predictions about the particular system or phenomena under consideration. Although originally intended to be a complete description of particle physics, in fact the model falls short of that, failing to include gravity as described by the Theory of General Relativity for instance, leading it to be sometimes called the Theory of (Almost) Everything. This aside however, there is no denying that it represents a remarkable scientific achievement as well as an ongoing challenge to update and refine it, particularly where it touches on esoteric areas outside the everyday world of scientific endeavour or at the limits of experimental or observational capability.
The elusive particle is named for Prof. Peter Higgs, a British physicist at Edinburgh University who first proposed the entity as the joint author of paper in the 1960’s and aims to solve the problem of how the property of mass arises in the most elementary sub-atomic particles (i.e. those that cannot be broken down into something even smaller and fundamental), something that the leading theories of the day had failed to explain. Higg’s solution was to predict that there might be an, as yet undiscovered, variant of a particular type of elementary particle called a Boson; that is a particle that displays a spin in whole, or integer, units of 1 or 0. Named after the Indian physicist Satyendra Bose, a Boson can occur in variety of forms such as Elementary (like a photon) or Composite (like a meson), as well possessing the counterintuitive property of being able to occupy the same space as a similar particle when at the same energy state. For this reason they often act as carriers of the most basic forces in nature. Higgs set out a theoretical framework to describe how the missing boson would need to interact with the surrounding quantum field and predictions for the experimental outcomes required to confirm its existence.
From the beginning, Higg’s predicted that the particle would be extremely difficult to detect and this has been borne out by experience. The latest series of experiments, begun at CERN in 2010, use the LHC, the most powerful particle accelerator ever built which was specially designed to perform this experiment. Housed in a 27 kilometre circular tunnel, buried 500m below the Swiss countryside near the city of Geneva it is capable of accelerating and then colliding beams of either protons or lead nuclei at energies of up to 7 teraelectronvolts. Despite the headlines, the experiment does not, in fact, fully confirm Higg’s hypothesis; although it is thought likely that it soon will; as is always the case in these matters, the evidence is fragmentary and difficult to collect and so doesn’t quite fit; in truth it might even actually disprove Higg’s theory, meaning that some of the alternative explanations may have to be dusted off and inserted into the model in its place. This last point reminds us of something very important about the model and of science in general – that nothing is ever fixed – or even certain – about science; it is an ongoing endeavour and an ever – evolving discipline. This might come as a surprise to some, for whom the phrase “scientifically proven” has replaced “gospel truth” as the ultimate arbiter of veracity.
The reason that I mention this because of an expression once popular among the press to describe the Higg’s Boson – the “God Particle”. It was coined by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman in his 1994 popular science book of the same name; it comes about from the view, held by some, that if the Standard Model can ever be fully verified than we would have a so-called “Theory of Everything”; and if we have that then there is nothing that we cannot explain and therefore what is there left for a “creator” to do ?
Now to be perfectly fair to the physics community, the term God Particle is heartily disliked and it is noticeable that the popular media have stopped using it recently. Nonetheless, the attitudes that it embodies are very common among the lay public, and since some scientists, I’m thinking particularly of Richard Dawkins, seem to share it and can find a ready audience among an increasingly atheistic audience who look to science as an alternative world view to fill in the gaps left by religion and, apparently, philosophy.
But how philosophically viable would a “Theory of Everything” actually be ? That it would be of use to a working physicist seems beyond question, but what do we really mean by a scientific model and what does it actually tell us ? I’ve outlined my view of that question above, which I know to be shared by at least one eminent scientist – Steven Hawking. In his 1984 book A Brief history of Time, he spoke of a scientific model as follows “…. I shall take the simpleminded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean) …“ In other words scientific models, just like science itself, are simply practical vehicles for studying, and solving, particular problems – they were never intended to be definitive statements of reality in the abstract since no such view is philosophically possible anyway.
In this regard, I believe that those who try to put forward science as a sort of secular religion are simply perpetuating the philosophical errors of the very religions, such as Christianity, that they seek to reject. What I mean by that is that the entire western tradition of science grows originally from Judeo – Christian religion. Many of the scientific tradition’s founding fathers, such as Newton, Descartes or Leibnitz, were devout Christians and believed that what they were doing was to reveal more of the majesty and wonder of God’s creation. But it goes much further than that, an entire school of thought from the Big Bang Theory of creation (first proposed by a catholic priest, Professor Monsignor Georges Lemaître of Louvain Catholic University) to Theories of Everything, speak of a Christian outlook on the universe, and an Aristotolean view of philosophy in the sense of his view of the impossibility of a series that has no beginning . And so we end up with the idea that the universe must have come from “somewhere” or “something” (a God-like Big Bang creation event) and that there is a single, knowable, comprehensible answer waiting to be discovered, just as theists believe in a single all powerful God, creator of all things who is “out there” waiting to be “known” by human beings.
It seems to me that such views regard scientific progress as a sort of unwrapping of the layers of illusion and uncertainty, rather like opening a set of Russian dolls, to eventually arrive at an ultimate pre-existing truth – and when we finish we will have …. well, a Theory of Everything. It’s rather reminiscent of those who look at the history of art and see a progression of artistic depiction that starts with cave-wall “stick men”, through Egyptian tomb painting and then renaissance perspective until we arrive at high resolution photographs as we seek the ultimate “realistic” depiction. But any form of artistic expression is false in one sense, even a three-dimensional holographic image is still a long way from being mistaken for the real thing; art uses a language that is a reality in itself – you would never confuse a picture with the thing is represents. And so it is with science and scientific models – they are mental abstracts and nothing more, once they are separated from the practical problem they are intended to solve, they lose all meaning and relevance.
So it is therefore that I hold that the ultimate truth that is being sought is in itself the biggest illusion of all – it doesn’t exist. The universe is what it is, entirely separate from any ideas that we may have of it – the Big Bang Theory of creation may be interesting, and the pursuit of “proofs” for its veracity may well reveal spin – off knowledge that is of use to us, but the idea that it tells us, in any absolute sense, what the universe “is” or where it or anything else “came from” rests on two highly unlikely assumptions. The first is that the answer exists in the first place (why should it ?) and the second is that even if it did that such a thing would be comprehensible or even knowable by us. Just like believing in an all powerful and all knowing God – the chances that we mortal humans, with our limited mental capabilities and knowing only a tiny and unremarkable part of the Universe, can ever have a complete knowledge of such a thing seems to me to be beyond believability. I guess what I’m trying to say is that replacing a literal belief in the Book of Genesis with a literal belief in the Standard Model of Particle Physics is really just a form of “Scientific Creationism”. An all omnipotent Deity is as unbelievable is having an all encompassing Theory of Everything.
And so we arrive back at CERN and the Higgs Boson and an interview on BBC News24 with Prof Brian Cox. The interviewer was the experienced, and instinctively sceptical, anchorman Peter Sissons. He had asked what, if anything, of any practical value had we, Europe’s taxpayers, actually got for our money ? Prof Cox’s reply was to concede that there was no immediate practical application, but that without theoretical research there could be no practical applications further down the line. He predicted that one hundred years from now we would look back on this day and realise that a great and important leap forward had been made.
He may well be right, but I suspect that if a podcast from the future (or whatever the equivalent is then) were to fall into our laps today then it might go as follows. The broadcast, in Chinese, would look back at the work of CERN in the early 21st century, and while admiring the technology and the work that went into it, the broadcaster would also muse on how different would have been the history and the prosperity of that land had they instead of investing 40bn Euros in pure particle physics research, pumped the money into, say, Internet software research – then Silicon Valley and the Internet revolution might have happened in Europe instead of America.
But maybe I’m being unkind to him and he is right and this does turn out to be a turning point in scientific research. To that end might I make an appeal and offer a suggestion; if he has any pull at all with the management of CERN perhaps he could prevail upon them to spend just a few hundred Euros from their budget to have a little sign made and put up over the front door where everyone can see it. It should contain the English translation of the original title of the facility – The European Council for Nuclear Research. This facility was founded to promote research into a technology to solve Europe’s power supply problem, and that is what it should still be doing. Will the Higg’s Boson discovery leads us towards a new technology for power generation ? I hope so, because the single greatest scientific challenge facing humanity today is not finding out where the universe came from or whether there is any place for God – and by now I’m sure that he would understand that even if he said he knew I would be unlikely to believe him. Get us a replacement for nuclear power and break our dependence on fossil fuels before we destroy ourselves and the planet. Do that for us and I will do something for you – I’ll solve the Science v God problem for him and his colleagues by showing them that it was never a problem in the first place.
Do we have a deal ?
Copyright ©2012 Savereo John