The End of Science

Is it the end of science as we know it?

You might get that impression if you read through the sheaf of articles following the discovery in July of the Higgs Boson.

After learning Higgs Boson wasn’t a wayward sailor from Berkshire, I started reading the popular press about the discovery called the search for the god particle.

I was interested in what constituted all the fuss.

Boson doesn’t mean bosun—another term for a petty officer—and Higgs doesn’t refer to the place where the Kennet and Avon canals intersect in England.

A boson is a particle, as in particle physics. The Economist magazine said the Higgs boson:

Has a particular sort of value of a quantum-mechanical property known as a spin.

The Higgs Boson was named for Peter Higgs, who figured that bosons are part of a model in quantum theory that helps explain what constitutes matter.

Fermions, bosons, quarks and leptons comprise the model, and physicists have been looking for evidence to support the theory that the Higgs Boson exists.

In other words, scholars since 1964 guessed—theorized, if you will—that the Higgs Boson is a critical feature of the model. But they couldn’t muster the evidence to confirm their noodling.

A very expensive machine called a hadron collider located at CERN (at the border of France and Switzerland)—short for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire—has the ability to send protons at incredible speeds—“close to the speed of light”—allowing them to crash into each other.

The particles then decay into more particles, according to The Economist, allowing the researchers to observe patterns left by the Higgs Boson.

The announcement that researchers finally located the Higgs Boson in July was called “the crowning achievement of one of history’s most successful scientific theories.”

So why all the glum faces?

The Economist goes on to say the discovery is “almost certainly the beginning of that theory’s undoing.”

And Science magazine said “If nothing else shows up, the discovery of the Higgs could mark the end of the road.”

Much of the press coverage frames the discovery as a monumental step for science, and there’s a bundle of verbiage that glorifies science for science’s sake.

The discovery trope is woven deeply into the story: the find “adds to the sum of human knowledge” and “no form of science reaches deeper into reality than particle physics.”

One thought is that the particle eluded empiricism for so long—some called it the goddamn particle—that it warranted the god moniker.

But more likely is that the news media grabbed onto the name as a convenient sound bite.

The hand-ringing in the discovery’s aftermath points to a temporary depression that unfolds over locating the answer to a 48-year-old question (have physicists found god?).

Now what?

If physics truly has landed at a cross-roads then the response is to keep on truckin’ and continue the quest.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in risk, science, science communication, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The End of Science

  1. Panama says:

    While evidence continues to mount that the climate is changing and we’re to blame, why do so many people continue to believe the opposite? Surely it’s because they don’t understand the science, right?


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