Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#19 - The Hidden Meaning in the Discovery of the Higgs boson

American Heathen:  aired: 18 August 2012

A little more than a month ago, on the 4th of July, 2012, as the USA celebrated its 236th birthday as a nation, it was announced that the Higgs boson had been detected by scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland.  This is a momentous finding in the science of physics that has much significance for all of us.  Don’t worry, though – I’m not about to launch into a discussion of the science, per se.  Instead, I want to discuss the significance of the fact that this important work was not done at a facility in the USA.

Anyone more than 30 years old might recall that a device even more powerful than the LHC had been proposed by a consortium of physicists in the early 1980s.  It was called the Superconducting Super Collider (or SSC) because it would take advantage of superconducting electromagnets to accelerate particles to near the speed of light before they were crashed together (a technology now being used by the LHC).  A site near Waxahachie, TX was chosen and construction of the device began in 1991.  It was planned that the collision energy of the SSC would be 40 TeV (40 trillion electron volts), compared to the LHC’s 8 TeV.  But in October of 1993, Congress cancelled the project after having already spent $2 billion.  There were many reasons for this cancellation, including the usual concerns about cost overruns and mismanagement of the project.

But the upshot of cancellation was that if a particle physicist wanted to be at the frontiers of science, a facility for doing so would not exist in the USA.  This was the signal for the beginning of a “brain drain” of particle physicists from the USA to Europe.  American scientists participated in the teams that made the discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC, but it will forever be a European triumph and an embarrassment to the USA.

The discovery of the Higgs boson is significant for our American society because of what it portends for our future.  Equally portentous for the future of science in the USA is the demise of the Space Shuttle and the associated cutbacks in NASA’s manned space program.  Many Americans take it for granted that the USA will always be the world leader in space exploration science, but as the discovery of the Higgs boson shows, there’s no guarantee that scientific leadership is automatically reserved for the USA.  Further evidence of our lapsing national commitment to science includes declining science and mathematics literacy in our students.  The intrusion of religious dogma into science has been but a small component in that decline, but it’s a worrisome issue nonetheless, since it reflects an attitude of willful ignorance that’s very disturbing. 

Even as our collective grasp of science declines, we’re increasingly being confronted with numerous issues of great import for our society related to science and technology.  Our American public’s growing ignorance makes them incapable of following the debates over such topics as global climate change, molecular genetics, birth control, evolutionary biology, weather modification, the search for extraterrestrial life, particle physics, cosmology, and so on.  How can our people make the right political decisions to guide their votes if our electorate is clueless when it comes to science?  How can our people make the right decisions in their personal lives if they’re scientifically illiterate?  The answers are clear:  They can’t!  I run into this problem all the time when dealing with the task of warning people about severe weather – many people seem to think someone else has all the responsibility for their personal safety.  If they choose to remain clueless about something that could destroy their homes and leave them and their loved ones dead, waiting for someone else to tell them what to do when threatening storms approach, there’s not much that the science of severe storms can do for them!

Most Americans live in a technology-dominated world, but have almost no understanding of how that technology works, or how it comes to be in their homes and workplaces.  Science must precede the development of technology.  The science that built the atomic bomb was not done during the famed Manhattan Project of WW2!  The science behind the bomb was done years before by Einstein (including his famous formula E=mc2) and other lesser-known physicists, many of whom were not Americans but Europeans (including Germans).  The task of making a bomb using that scientific knowledge was predominantly an engineering challenge, not a scientific one.  The atomic bomb is an example of a piece of technology, the structure of which rests on a scientific foundation.   Without new scientific understanding, the inspiration for new technology will cease and our technological leadership will disappear even more thoroughly than our scientific leadership has.

I love my country as much as anyone, but it’s becoming less and less favorable for someone committed to working on pushing back the frontiers of scientific knowledge.  We’re no longer the greatest nation in many respects, and this decay of our commitment to science is going to accelerate our decline in many, many other aspects of our society.  Science may seem to many non-scientists to be the province of a bunch of geeks playing around, but it’s actually a bulwark propping up our nation’s rise to greatness.  Letting that bulwark fall into decay will surely have dramatic consequences for our nation, ultimately including not just scientists but everyone.  American science already has suffered serious setbacks, such as has been revealed so clearly by the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Sadly, I don’t know how to turn the situation around in the face of what Americans seem to be deciding:  that is, to be ignorant by choice!  The ramifications of this will be felt most keenly by my children and their children.  I predict those ramifications will be painful.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.