The nature of scientific knowledge – inspiration from Higgs

by Sir Peter Gluckman
View of complex machinery like a particle accelerator at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research

On 4 July 2012 physicists at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, announced that they now have compelling evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle whose existence was postulated 48 years ago by Peter Higgs at Edinburgh University and five others.

The experimental confirmation of the Higgs boson supports the existence of the Higgs field, which permeates space and which gives mass to elementary particles as they travel through it. This finding is central to the physicist’s general understanding of the nature of all things physical and chemical, from the scale of the universe to that of the atom itself.

The discovery of the Higgs boson has been immediately seen as one of the most significant scientific advances of the last 100 years. It has been compared to Copernicus’ recognition that the sun was at the centre of the solar system or Francis Crick’s and James Watson’s description of the structure of DNA. The discovery offers an opportunity to reflect on the changing nature of science, science funding and social expectations from science.

Some have argued that the path to the Higgs boson was different—perhaps less exciting—than presumably, the popular view of what scientific discovery is, with the experimental proof coming decades after Higgs’ prediction.

Yet such examples aren’t rare in the history of science: take the mammalian egg, which was first observed by the German scientist Karl Ernst von Baer in 1828, yet whose existence had been suspected since the seventeenth century. Indeed it is standard practice in science to start with theoretical prediction and hypothesis construction and then test it experimentally.

But some have also suggested that while Crick and Watson’s description of DNA structure has, in the following half-century, seen many practical applications, the Higgs boson is unlikely to be of the same wide-ranging use.

Yet this view is again short-sighted; we cannot know how new knowledge will develop and be used. Von Baer could not have imagined that in the twentieth century mammalian (including human) eggs will be fertilised outside the uterus; and the radio-astronomer John O’Sullivan did not expect, while trying to reduce interference from reflected radio waves, that he would create the technology behind Wi-Fi networks.

Underlying some of these commentaries is criticism of the large public funding that supports the work of CERN, money that some have suggested could be ‘better spent’ on projects of large social use.

But it is precisely because fundamental science isn’t of obvious (and potentially commercial) value that society must support it. It is the place of public institutions and the public to take a larger perspective and support discovery—even if not obviously applicable—science. The pay off, though it may be later, will be large.

* Dr Tatjana Buklijas from my Office contributed to this posting.

Our themes