What Good is a Higgs Boson When the Planet is Burning?

Call me sour, but I really can’t find much to get excited about by the news that physicists have moved one step closer to figuring out how the universe began.

Yes, the Higgs Boson is an amazing phenomenon.  “Without it,” writes Dennis Overbye in The New York Times, “all the elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.”

Yes, it’s an amazing feat, to which hundreds of scientists have dedicated their lives, to have actually nailed the elusive Higgs Boson in the giant particle accelerator built for that purpose.

But while the champagne corks are popping at the physicists’ convention in Melbourne Australia today, all the myriad problems confronting us physical beings still fester unchecked.

What good will it do us to understand how matter formed back at the beginning of the universe while we are succumbing to drought, wildfires, violent storms and floods?

What good will that marvelous particle accelerator do us when the climate is so disrupted that we can no longer rely on a steady stream of electricity, or a steady food supply to keep us going?

We really need all those super-smart people to pull their heads out of the air and start focusing much closer to our own time and place.

We need more scientists like Lonnie Thompson, who has spent the past forty years traveling to remote glaciers and mountain peaks all over the world to collect ice core samples that give us insight into climate change in the much more recent past—the last 10,000 years or so.

“Dr. Thompson,” writes Justin Gillis in The New York Times, “became one of the first scientists to witness and record a broad global melting of land ice. And his ice cores proved that this sudden, coordinated melting had no parallel, at least not in the last several thousand years.

“To some climate scientists, the Thompson ice core record became the most convincing piece of evidence that the rapid planetary warming now going on was a result of a rise in greenhouse gases caused by human activity.”

Do we really need any more convincing?

The latest storms to hit the U.S. struck the wealthy suburbs of Washington D.C., and surprise surprise, those Beltway folks were just as susceptible to power loss as the rest of us out in the hinterlands.  Forced to cope with triple-digit heat with no air conditioners, their sweat smells no sweeter than ours.

Likewise, the wildfires out West are burning up the homes of the wealthy as fast as they’re burning the millions of acres of dead trees decimated by the surge in the pine bark beetle population, another gift of warmer weather.

Wealth is not going to protect us from climate change.

Abstract particle physics is not going to mean a damn once the extreme weather really sets in, just a few short years from now at our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions.

We have the technology now to engineer a rapid shift to renewable energy sources that will immediately curb the pace of global heating to keep our planet livable.

If the greatest minds of our time trained their attention on this fundamental issue, I have absolutely no doubt that we could solve it.

And if the rest of us not only went along with the technological changes, but actively pressured our political representatives to enact policies that would force big business to do the same, worldwide, we could make sure that the new technology was broadly implemented, quickly.

Hell, it will be good for business! We are potentially at the start of a whole new age, where demand for brand new products like solar panels and geothermal pumps could keep factories running for decades.

We don’t need any more oil rigs or gas wells.  That way lies suicide, on a species-wide scale.

We cannot afford to waste any more time, or to allow ourselves to be distracted by anything less important than the urgent question of survival—our own, and that of all the beautiful life forms on this planet we love.

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27 Comments

  1. Klaus

     /  July 4, 2012

    Sorry Jennifer, but you are way off.
    Do you have any idea about the “byproducts” of this discovery?

    For starters, did you know that the “web” (or more precise, the underlying protocol HTTP) was developed … well, at CERN in Switzerland? Heck, you might still sit in front of some “videotex” terminal if those physicist at CERN hadn’t spent some time thinking about better means to communicate with their peers.

    Yes, humanity spends billions at CERN. So fucking what. While doing so, we learn so much; not only about the deepest foundations of our universe, but also … how to collect, store, analyze zillions and zillions of Gigabytes of data. No climate model, not yet a precise weather forecast (that sometimes might save the lives of thousands of human beings) would exist today without some physicist thinking about “oh my god, how can I do what I would like to do”.

    Yes, there are thousands and thousands of REAL problems out there. And you know what – instead of convincing the physicists that they should work on something else – you better convince the lazy, non critical majority of US citizens that THEY have to do something to tell their leaders to act differently.

    And just for a second … you are teaching … err, what? Literature and hmm gender studies. Wow, that sounds like you are solving so really important problems every other day. Probably that is pretty unfair … but hey, so is your ridiculous attack against the people that INCREASE knowledge.

    Fight those idiots that INCREASE stupidity.

    Reply
  2. A little on-line research will help anyone’s understanding of what practical science also flows from places like CERN, SLAC and other particle physics labs. Recent news posts from Stanford’s linear accelerator public information office tell how that instrument is used in cancer research and developing methods for printing photovoltaic cells on sheets like paper, just for two quick examples. Indeed, we should expect citizens to be well informed about science and literature, etc. But one wonders why education is under attack as being too costly in other countries besides the USA. That implies an agenda for stupidity … whose agenda?

    Reply
  3. Martin Lack

     /  July 4, 2012

    Stephen Hawking has apparently lost a 100USD bet with an American professor with whom he wagered that we would not find the God Particle. One wonders who he has gambled – and for how much – on humanity not failing to mitigate climate change…
    http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/technology/2011/11/stephen-hawking-human-survival-depends-on-settling-space/

    If anyone needs a reality check, Lester Brown is your man…
    World on the Edge: How to avoid Environmental and Economic Collapse

    Reply
  4. Neal J. King

     /  July 4, 2012

    Sorry, Jennifer, but the way you’re thinking about science is ridiculous:

    – Scientific skills and interests are not interchangeable: Switch scientists in different fields, and you won’t get the same results. Different technical areas require and stimulate different types of thinking and creativity. So if you switch a particle physicist to designing batteries, you don’t get a good battery designer: You get a drop-out / computer programmer (possibly designing videogames).

    – Climate-change is a medium-range issue: This issue will be resolved, one way or another, withiin the next 150 years. But maintainance of our ability to develop new technology is a long-term issue: We’re going to have to do that for many thousands of years (or until we’re wiped out; whichever comes first). The only way to maintain this ability is to keep doing it. Abandoning long-term requirements in favor of medium-term needs is no smarter than abandoning medium-term needs in favor of short-term needs – which is what we criticize about those who want to postpone thinking about climate change in favor of cheap power & the state of the economy. We have to plant some seed corn as well as eat some.

    Reply
  5. Don’t get mad with Jennifer. High level science such as particle physics is venerated. In this emergency we need our most influential sectors to lobby for urgent action. Sure, we can’t expect people to drop their day jobs and dedicate themselves entirely to this issue – though an increasing number of determined activists do just that – but imagine the power of stopworks by concerned scientists involved in massively expensive ventures such as CERN. How radical!

    Let’s face it, of the general population it’s the science educated who are best able to appreciate and critique the methodology behind climate change predictions and who can see their way past deliberate obfuscation by vested interest spokespeople. Which is why greatest consensus about the urgency of this issue is found within the science fraternity, and why the rest of us plebs want to hear them shouting.

    Speaking of denialists, here’s an unexpected funny from last year by a bunch of Aussie climate scientists, totally exasperated with the denialist’s media spokespeople. (It’s a bit rude, bless them.)

    And Martin, I’m with you. It’s really sad that the remarkable Stephen Hawking promulgates his fiction. Even if there was yet time to develop space colonies, you’d think he’d notice the bleeding obvious; we’re a destructive species escaping a trashed planet, without learning and reforming. More destruction inevitable….

    Reply
  6. Jon Thaler

     /  July 5, 2012

    “Call me sour”. OK. Your post is strikingly dyspeptic. Do you go to museums or concerts? Do you read books? I hope not, unless you are a hypocrite. Why aren’t *you* working on the problem?

    Yes, climate change is a serious problem. No, its mitigation does not require single minded dedication on the part of every human on the planet.

    Reply
  7. It seems you’ve copped a bit of a hiding on this one Jennifer, but underservedly so. Abstract physics may support further scientific discovery, but the problem is that the scientific discoveries we’ve achieved with the physics we’ve had up till now, still isn’t taken seriously in the corridors of power (unless you can use it to make a squillion dollars).

    On rereading your piece, I can’t see anywhere that you’ve taken a personal line against Higgs himself, who developed his famous theory when climate change wasn’t even heard of, and politicians thought the best energy source for the future was nuclear. He is a great man of a former age, who still happens to be alive, and we should respect his contribution to our knowledge, despite the fact that the big questions have moved on.

    Problem is that there will be a bunch of nutbag politicians out there using this discovery to crow about how humanity’s ingenuity can solve all our problems, while simultaneously supporting creationism in schools, and arguing against increased public funding of science education. Unfortunately, abstract physics fuels human hubris, and helps us forget our very biological basis of being.

    There are another bunch of nutbags who think that if the climate goes to shit, they will be able to blast off to another unsullied planet to continue their main reason for being -resource depletion. The sort of boys-own fantasies of inter-galactic derring-do that were popular in Higgs’ younger days are the feedstock of contemporary techno-elitest-escapism. The rest of us can burn alive here on Earth.

    So, as we say here in Oz Jennifer, play the ball, not the man – and I think you are living up to that maxim. Too many loonies, not enough gardeners.

    Reply
  8. Neal J. King

     /  July 5, 2012

    Angie,

    You suggest:
    “Don’t get mad with Jennifer. High level science such as particle physics is venerated. In this emergency we need our most influential sectors to lobby for urgent action. Sure, we can’t expect people to drop their day jobs and dedicate themselves entirely to this issue – though an increasing number of determined activists do just that – but imagine the power of stopworks by concerned scientists involved in massively expensive ventures such as CERN. How radical!”

    If a few thousand particle physicists stopped the experiments at CERN, the budget-stressed governments of the world would simply line-out that item, and all of the physicists would find alternative (most probably non-research) lines of work. Not only would this NOT help the climate problem, but they would lose their standing in science to make any statement concerning the danger of climate change. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

    Reply
  9. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  July 5, 2012

    This came in by email from a reader:

    Once upon a time, long long ago, a young boy grew into manhood on a Hudson Valley working farm just over the state line in New York, past North Egremont, Hillsdale, Craryville, Martindale – an old Dutch community called Claverack. The boy loved the seasons’ sharp edges: muddy springs, lush green summers, brilliant falls, and the cold, deep-snowed winters.

    The man still remembers the smell of new mown June hay, the smoky bite of September’s burning maple leaves, and the unmistakable aromas of different firewoods wafting from the village chimneys. Much later in life, following many helping careers, the graying man sought out a graduate program in environmental studies. His farm roots, those early years on the land, kindled a deepening concern about what humans were doing to their only source of life – planet earth. To the question,”Why, at your age, are you going back to graduate school?” he would answer, “For my grandchildren.”

    One of my memorable insights in a graduate school Public Policy course flows from the study of sensitivity testing, the challenge of establishing priorities when formulating policy decisions. Does the village invest limited funds in enlarging the shelving of the classical music section in the town library or replace the aging pump in the water system? Should the city bond the cost of bringing the grammar school up to code or enlarging elderly housing? Might a state best use its Tobacco Settlement funds to prevent further cigarette addiction or to pay for the costly care of former smokers dying of lung cancer?

    The decisions get tougher as more funding and evermore powerful interest groups get rolled into the process. However, clashes around public funding usually evaporate when major life and property losses loom. The US government stopped all pleasure car production two days after declaring WW II. All further production efforts would focus on war materiel. Communities cancel town funded fireworks and put their fire departments on patrol when tinder dry conditions might endanger the town.

    Those following James Hansen’s, “Storms of My Grandchildren” and Bill McKibben’s, “Eaarth,” or the Nobel recognized research of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) believe that climate change, already a loping beast destroying humankind’s precious weather patterns, will soon emerge a raging tiger destroying the existence of those who pollute the skies.

    Welcome to the courageous ranks of Rachel Carson and Donella Meadows. You have touched a cultural nerve. In the early1960s Carson’s “Silent Spring” brought unrelenting derision and attacks from the chemical industry and mocking reviews from the New York Times. Meadow’s 1972 “Limits to Growth” unleashed decades of scorn from economists and the Business Round Table. Being the point person in any paradigm shift risks the greatest wrath. Of course, wise public policy would take a time out from billions and brains spent on chasing the origins of heft and initiate a ‘war footing’ response to the climate disruption that threatens our very lives.

    Good luck and Godspeed.

    The writer also notes:
    “When Hedron and Higgs zealots mount ever nastier fire power, remind them that the collider had to shut down some months back because a record drought in France lowered river water levels to the point that nuclear power plants had to close down – no millions of gallons for cooling. Hmm? Perhaps a connection these theorists might want to pursue.”

    Reply
  10. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  July 5, 2012

    Another comment by email:
    Dear Jennifer,

    This is why I think that the best thing we can do is described at:

    http://www.subtleenergies.com/ormus/tw/favorite.htm

    With kindest regards,

    Barry Carter

    Reply
  11. Neal J. King

     /  July 5, 2012

    “When Hedron and Higgs zealots mount ever nastier fire power…”

    Please try to understand that particle physics has nothing to do with either nuclear bombs or nuclear power. Other than being made up of subatomic particles. Just like everything else.

    With respect to comparison with Rachel Carson, it’s not a fair comparison: Carson understood science.

    Reply
  12. Neal J. King

     /  July 5, 2012

    What is standing in the way of progress is not lack of scientific effort to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, but lack of institutional support by governments to promote implementation of what is already well understood:
    – Subsidies for fossil fuels must be eliminated
    – Costs for CO2 and other environmental harms must be imposed, to re-internalize environmental damages that have been externalized by industry

    The real issues are economic and institutional. Get those out of the way, and the remaining technical challenges can easily be overcome. Cutting advanced science to try to force technical development in other fields is like burning money to warm your hands.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  July 5, 2012

      Neal, you seem to have misunderstood my intention in this piece. I totally agree with your suggestions above. I am not talking about cutting funds for physics as much as I am asking physicists to lend their clout and intelligence to the fight for our future as a species on this planet. Something like the Physicians for Social Responsibility group would go a long way, for example, towards providing a powerful lobby to stand up to the denialists and the fossil fuel industrialists.

      Reply
  13. Neal J. King

     /  July 5, 2012

    Jennifer,

    Perhaps you’d better read your own article again more carefully. That may be what you meant – but it’s not what you said.

    Reply
  14. Hey Neal.

    I was suggesting that a couple of top end science stopworks would attract serious attention, and do you know what? That could be a good thing.

    After all, there’s no Hadron Collider on a dead planet.

    Reply
  15. Martin Lack

     /  July 6, 2012

    Can I suggest that Neal – and everybody else commenting on this post – might like to read this:
    “Meanwhile, despite increasing evidence linking the frequency of extreme weather events to climate change, the constant complaining of the “funny weather” and myriad of statistically solid evidence backed, peer-reviewed scientific research, climate change is something 43% of Brits are unwilling to commit to. Yet when a team of theoretical physicists produce findings so hugely intangible to the general public and with far less obvious and instant repercussions for our way of life, there is not a single cynic or voice of dissent to be found.”
    What the Higgs Boson tells us about climate change science

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  July 6, 2012

      Dear Martin, thank you!!

      Reply
      • Martin Lack

         /  July 6, 2012

        I am very glad to be able to be of some service to you and all your readers!

        I am so incensed by this highly-selective refusal to accept what scientists are telling us (and/or falsely accuse them of political bias), that I have decided to try once more to draw attention to the apparently-deliberate misrepresentation of scientific facts by a certain Dr Richard S Lindzen:
        http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/are-you-negligent-incompetent-or-complicit/

        I would be delighted if people would pass this message on via Twitter/Facebook/Linked-In.

      • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

         /  July 6, 2012

        Yes, excellent post on LACK OF ENVIRONMENT today, and it seems to me that this has to be one of our most important functions as outside media workers: to be vigilant and skeptical in our own way, and fight misinformation with facts. As a professor of media studies, I am highly aware of how we swim in a hyper-saturated media sea, full of all kinds of floating miscellany about which it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s concocted in the service of some agenda (too often extreme right-wing). I was trained in postmodern skepticism to believe only in multiple versions of “the truth,” but certain things are simply undeniable, and anthropogenic global heating is one of these bedrock truths, like evolution, that we should no longer be wasting time disputing.

  16. Neal J. King

     /  July 6, 2012

    Angie:

    “I was suggesting that a couple of top end science stopworks would attract serious attention, and do you know what? That could be a good thing.”

    No, it would attract no attention at all. It would be like not fixing a moisture leak in your home: You would notice some years later, when dry rot has taken over.

    Reply
  17. Neal J. King

     /  July 6, 2012

    Martin Lack:

    – Yes, I’m quite aware that particle physics is much more readily accepted than climate science. The reason is that if you accept the straightforward conclusions of climate science, you rapidly come to the conclusion that big changes are needed; the exact extent of which are not completely certain. Faced with this uncomfortable situation, most people are happier to conclude that the science must, somehow, be wrong.

    – Yes, Lindzen is one of the stranger cases. In his professional articles in scientific journals, he is careful but on the skeptical side; but in his not infrequent op-eds in The Wall St. Journal, he says things that are absolutely incorrect.

    Reply
  18. Neal J. King

     /  July 6, 2012

    There is a collection of Lindzen’s misstatements and refutations:
    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Lindzen_Illusions.htm

    Reply
  19. When I heard the news, I wrote the following poem:

    Imagined, Unseen

    In Geneva they’re popping champagne corks.
    London and Brussels,
    Princeton, Melbourne and Chicago follow suit.
    The Higgs boson may have showed itself at last:
    key to understanding
    why elementary particles have mass.
    “God” particle, some physicists say,
    will explain diversity and life in the universe.

    Why all things stick together. Still, diversity
    remains illusive
    in the high thin air of the Peruvian Andes
    where a woman lights a candle
    at her village church.
    She does not celebrate.
    her infant daughter is gone
    and now her prayer is for the child’s soul.

    Without Higgs, say the physicists,
    all elementary forms of matter
    would dance madly
    at the speed of light,
    streaming through us
    like moonlight or unruly ideas.
    Neither atoms nor life
    would answer our questions.

    At a mass grave, Guatemalan evidence
    of genocide,
    second third and fourth generations
    demand an end to impunity.
    A skull fragment or bit of blood-caked shirt
    are knots on a memory string.
    No celebration here.
    No champagne. No elegant equations.

    The new particle weighs in at 125 billion
    electron volts.
    This boson, imagined but unseen for decades,
    reaffirms a universe
    ruled by symmetry.
    Everything interesting
    (including ourselves) is due to flaws
    or ruptures in the Standard Model.

    Dark energy like dark weather
    alters the paradigm.
    In Sudan lost children walk again.
    Cambodia’s Killing Fields hold memories
    too real to store in manageable volts.
    In Geneva they’re popping the corks.
    Champagne leaves a dull taste
    upon the tongue.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  July 8, 2012

      I am not surprised to find that you and I had similar reactions to this news, Margaret. It’s interesting, but…this seems to be no time for champagne….

      Reply
  1. Reason, Science, Technology, and the Higgs Boson « Mato's Blog
  2. Mato’s Blog » Blog Archive » Reason, Science, Technology, and the strange Higgs Boson

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