I stayed up late (California) to watch the Higgs announcement and posted various thoughts of my own, and comments from the presentations, on my Twitter feed.
So I saw first hand a strange phenomenon take place; a whole bunch of people got a lot of it wrong. And these were not journalists or laypeople, it was (a) other physicists and (b) other scientists, who were caught up with enthusiasm and ignored the actual results. When I watched the presentation, I saw a careful explanation of preliminary results but the heads of the Atlas and CMS experiments knew what people wanted to see; an energy range in GeV (GeV is a billion electron volts) and whether or not it is a 'discovery' (5-sigma - one in a million chance of being wrong).
And they got it. There was a small problem. If you only looked at one slide, it certainly looked good but even with a casual knowledge of physics, you had to notice something strange; it wasn't really 5-sigma and it was unclear if that was the Higgs that was predicted. It was in the high 4 ranges unless you leave some information out. Tommaso Dorigo writing from the auditorium in real time had the true story, and noted things like that "CMS chose to report the negative result of low-mass-resolution channel H->tau tau" and that Atlas did not. He wasn't not calling it a discovery, he says it is and if he says it is, well, by golly, it is. But what is it?
It might not be the "Higgs" we have come to know and love, even if they call it that. Now, obviously when they combine the experiments, this is going to be a 5-sigma discovery, it would be silly to dispute that. I am not being pedantic, though, when I write that I want things to mean what they are supposed to mean, because the blowback from the public if they are not is substantial. The IPCC issuing media talking points in 2006, which were quoted as data by the media, and that did substantial harm to climate science - by the time the report with actual data came out in 2007 no one paid attention, and it turned out to have some crippling errors in content and methodology and, despite recommendations by the InterAcademy Council (IAC) on how to fix the problems, the IPCC went the opposite direction and gerrymandered the membership based on social progressivism.
The Atlas and CMS experiments do not have that problem, this is solid work, but as my Twitter feed showed, people inside science were not calibrating what it means correctly, they were caught up in hype about it. The LHC has something and were putting a stake in the ground. As Tommaso rightly noted, he was surprised (and pleased) that just this once the LHC was not afraid to announce a discovery.
But discovery of what? Journalists, the same people who lost their minds with praise over every media talking point from the IPCC in 2006 and did no fact checking at all, were the ones treating this actual science with some caution. You know, being journalists. Maybe all of the terrible science journalists have been fired and the good ones are left. Maybe the remaining ones are jaded by hype and weekly miracle vegetable stories.
I can be too, a little. I was never keen on building an LHC-type machine in America because I am old enough to remember the fiasco of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC). While young, earnest fans of physics today lament that America did not build this, those who do so have no clue about technology or history. The SSC could be called Reagan's Folly - he was such a fan of science and basic research he got sold a pipe dream, over the objections of most of the people around him. The SSC would have been spectacular, it was just that no one had any clue how in the world to build it. By the time it was canceled, and Democrats were right to cancel it, they were not just playing politics and sticking it to a Reagan project (for that, see Obama regarding Bush's Constellation project cancellation), it had cost half as much as the LHC had cost in 2010 and had nothing to show for it but a hole in the ground.
Dr. Michael Gamble, writing here, disagrees and believes that if America had stayed the course we would have a 40 TeV machine (TeV is Tera–electronvolts, trillions of electronvolts, called the Terascale by physicists) and would have found the Higgs and have gone well beyond the LHC by now. But as an insider at the SSC, he is forgetting that the SSC had a joint confidence level of under 50%, even by the people wanting to build it. That means they knew they could build the easy parts and hoped technology and money would show them how to build the hard parts when time came. They insisted we should have believed that they were going to build the equivalent of the LHC's successor in the mid-1990s.
I was not keen on a new collider in the US, when that came up, because I think America has forgotten how to be bold in science and technology; biologists still can be, the Human Genome Project showed that, but NASA and Big Physics are more job works programs today than science endeavors; space and physics project managers simply want to get 'too big to fail' and we are right for sticking to smaller projects until we culturally get back on track. I think smaller experiments have done terrific things.
So that circles back to the Higgs issue. This may not be the Higgs that we expected to get. If that is the case, it is going to require the International Linear Collider (ILC) to figure out what is going on and that means the LHC is basically the world's biggest refrigerator. It will do other experiments, obviously, but for $10 billion and soon a two-year maintenance downtime, that is not great and not how it was sold. Lyn Evans, former Large Hadron Collider project leader, is already pressing for the ILC. Unlike the LHC, which is a proton-proton synchrotron, the ILC will collide electrons with positrons in the TeV range.
The problem is, who will want to build it? Americans are jaded and Europeans could soon be if the 'what we don't learn in physics is important too' argument is invoked for taxpayers there. That leaves Asia, and the continuing nonsensical laments that if Americans or Europeans don't build an ILC, Asia will take over 'science leadership', whatever that means.
Advocates will have legitimate political examples on their side. In perspective, the entire LHC cost less money than two of the new U.S. Navy DDG-1000 destroyers rolling out some day. But rather than saying, 'you spent $6 billion on a destroyer, you should spend $20 billion on a collider' - which is kind of like claiming you are as good as the worst writer at the New York Times, so they should give you a job - advocates should come up with a solid reason why we don't let the country that can build cheap iPads and cheap solar panels (and thus can claim technology and green energy 'leadership') build a collider on time and on budget.
Science is an international endeavor, it is said, and that is the mantra until it is time to fund things that are tough for the public to understand, like obscure colliders. Then scientists get neo-con nationalistic about how crucial it is to stay ahead of the world and build it in their backyard; much like neo-cons are about military technology.
When it comes to science, Twitter enthusiasm aside, scientists rule. When it comes to discuss policy for expensive projects, not so much. It may be instead that, for the first time in over a decade, science journalists are going to be trusted guides for the public and ask the awkward questions of science and scientists rather than simply being cheerleaders or advocates.
If so, we welcome them back.
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