ÖOn August 31, 2010, the Life and Physics blog was moved from a new WordPress blog to the Guardian Science pages. Exactly eight years later¹, by the end of this month, it will retire as the Guardian closes its science blog network. Based on my fellow blogger Dean Burnett, here is a final review with a Douglas Adams-inspired headline².
My main purpose in writing these articles has been to share the wonder of my science (particle physics, the study of the fundamental components and forces of the universe) while also demystifying it a little. One of the wonderful things about science is the fact that it is made by flawed, often confused people and yet achieves so much. My favorite quote remains that of Max Gluckman:
A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation
Fools and geniuses. Often at the same time.
Everything about the Higgs
I don’t think I’m biased when I say that the most exciting thing in particle physics at this time was the discovery of the Higgs boson at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which I was personally involved in.
I started writing the blog because I was interested in the LHC, specifically an article I co-wrote while searching for the Higgs when it crumbled into a pair of bottom quarks. Perhaps fittingly, my last regular article here contained the eventual observation of this process. Hope my longtime readers enjoyed watching the birth of a new particle that could (but not) have happened randomly and of course was announced in the font best suited for complex topics and elementary school newsletters. The blog has been of great help in writing Smashing Physics where you can relive the discovery if you feel like it. I hope you are.
Science, Evidence, and Measles
The way we try not to be mistaken in particle physics applies well beyond the subject itself. In fact, life would likely be better for everyone if they were also used more often outside of science. I have tried to cover a few of these, including a proposed scientific closed mind definition that was inspired by the Reverend Bayes.
One of the most popular articles had nothing to do with particle physics, everything to do with trying not to be fooled or to fool myself on the crucial question of my son’s health – MMR and me.
Particle physics is more than Higgs and more physics than particles. That stays my favorite act (ok it includes the Higgs, but there is more). The Dark Matter Hunt was a topic and remains a constant search. I went “off the blog” for that Discovery of gravitational wavesand it was also covered by Janna Levin in one of the perimeter lectures that I gave here on a regular basis.
Another popular particle-free post was up and running the violent origins of gold, more nuclear and astrophysics than particle physics. The physics of proton therapy is also more nuclear than particles. And then there is the physics of the harp, the climbing and … well, basically the physics is everywhere.
Back to the particles, this is a good place to say thank you for all of the guest authors. There have been several great one-offs, and theorists Herbi Dreiner, Ben Allanach, and Michael Krämer have made a number of contributions with perspectives on the role of theory, public engagement, and philosophy. But above all, thanks to Lily Asquith, especially for her My favorite particle Series began. There will also be a summary of her report on particle physicist in Whitehall before the end of August.
Science and politics
The expectations that we place on our politicians with regard to their scientific findings are far too low, as the enthusiastic reaction to Justin Trudeau’s modest expertise in quantum computers shows. But a little more political competence wouldn’t hurt either.
Science, especially particle physics, is an international endeavor. With some reservations, the EU has been a very good cause for science and the UK has been very influential in the past (for example in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures), which strengthened our ability to be a major player outside of Europe. Whatever they did, the result of the Brexit referendum and the resulting “lack of clarity” have seriously damaged our reputation and threaten to leave us in a much worse position than (for example) Norway, Switzerland or Israel³.
This is a distracting backdrop to study or write about in science, and it has increasingly come to the fore. Our future as a leading scientific nation has been undermined by ignorance, prejudice, and propaganda in what looks like a great deal of fraud and outside external interference. We particle physicists are probably better off than many other scientists, although the effects will go well beyond science if something is not done to mitigate it. The trend towards nationalism and nativism goes sadly and powerfully beyond Britain. Although the scientific method is, history does not suggest that physicists have any particular resilience.
A different kind of politics and a different kind of distraction: By the time I became a department head, I didn’t fully understand the impact of sexual misconduct and harassment on science. This is of course because I am part of a privileged majority in my field and as a Petrie multiplier elegantly demonstrated, the majority can easily do without effects that are inevitable for the minority.
Less worrying than unknown political territory is the fact that particle physics at the LHC and elsewhere is now deviating from the theoretical map. This map – the so-called Standard Model of Particle Physics – predicted the Higgs, but leaves many important questions unanswered. For example, it doesn’t explain dark matter or why the universe contains more matter than antimatter, and it doesn’t take on gravity.
In search of clues to these and other problems, the LHC continues to provide more data at the highest energies so that we can examine our newly discovered boson with increasing precision, but also detect possible anomalies and push the boundaries of knowledge beyond the standard model. The search for dark matter also continues in underground detectors and in astrophysics. Other experiments, for example in neutrino physics or precision quantum measurements of the muon, offer exciting insights into what could be going on. In the meantime, new technologies for higher (and cheaper) energies are being developed, theorists let their imaginations wander and we all discuss what the best way to go after the LHC could be.
One of my favorite metaphors (as far as I’ve made a book out of it) is the “map” we have of what’s going on at the subatomic level. I like it because it gives a sense of exploration, but it also makes it clear that the relationships between the things we discover are important. Everything has to fit together. The process of adding a new piece of knowledge to an existing framework and seeing how the framework needs to change as a result is exciting and insightful, and lends itself to a different metaphor (and a definitive reference from Douglas Adams). Science as a holistic detective agency.
There will be new results, clues, and discoveries in the months and years to come, and I will likely continue to write about them somewhere. In this case, links will always be published here. I would be happy if you read on. But eight years on Guardian Science blogs, goodbye and thanks for your attention. It was a privilege.
¹Although a bit confusing, here are some entries that are older than this if you try as I migrated some of the earlier ones
² Sean Carroll hit me for “The Particle at the End of the Universe”
³ Non-EU CERN member states