Oh Higgs, where art thou?

One of my favourite bloggers, Mick Hartley, has today had a go at that dreadful shower of otherwise unemployable degenerates known as physicists. While I do not have a problem with this per se, Mick has aimed a bit wide of the mark in his attack on particle physics.

The “God particle” to which Mick sniffily refers is a term invented by science journalists who feel they have to compete with “Freddy Star ate my hamster”, Hello magazine and Simon Jenkins. Its use has subsequently been taken up by scientists who know that “public outreach” is important, but with their poor communication skills haven’t a clue what it actually involves.

As for the Higgs boson, to give the subatomic particle its proper name, it is actually important. Experimental confirmation of the particle’s existence, together with an accurate measure of its mass, would settle a number of questions about the so-called Standard Model, and bring to an end a lot of potentially time-wasting speculation. And don’t forget that the Standard Model did away with the so-called “particle zoo” of the 1950s and 60s, much simplifying high energy physics in the process.

As for Mick’s jibe about the employment of physicists being the rationale for CERN, I – a physicist who a few years ago was forced to leave my field of research owing to a lack of funding – could gripe at the vast sums spent on CERN, and the relative peanuts devoted to space and atmospheric physics. But I don’t.

As a job creation scheme, CERN, with its nearly €600m annual budget, is not exactly cost-effective. If we simply wanted to keep physicists – white coated or otherwise – off the streets, it would surely be better to turn them all into theorists, and supply them with cheap and cheerful Beowulf Cluster systems on which to do their mathematical modelling.

There is, however, only so much theorising one can do, and particle accelerators are good for a lot more than searching for God. Materials scientists and engineers make great use of particle accelerators, and in my field they are even used for studying the detail of physical and chemical interactions relevant to climate change.

So the moral of this story is: don’t believe everything you read in the papers! With science it is very often bollocks, even if the underlying story has legs.