The hunt for a theoretical particle reveals an alarming trend in science: the competition to be the next ‘great man’—at any cost.
A surefire way to get yourself onto a roll of “great men”—if that’s your bag—is to make a revolutionary contribution to science. Newton had gravity, Einstein had relativity; even the nuclear-bomb guy gets remembered more positively than not these days. Great scientists are almost synonymous with great men.
True, the grand discoveries these men made have sometimes become tools for wrongdoing, and certainly they’ve been the source of violent disagreement—but the moral character of the men themselves, overwhelmingly defined by their objective, noble quest for knowledge and understanding, usually remains unimpeachable.
As I’ve argued in this column before, though, flattening our most brilliant historical figures into nothing more than “great men of science” does a disservice, both to the men themselves and to our own understanding of their legacy. Only when we dig deeper are the best stories revealed, along with my focus today: the most alarming trends.
Let me reassure any scientists reading that I don’t intend this column to be one more about the world-ending capabilities of particle accelerators, or the sort of scaremongering that appeared in many media outlets alongside the inauguration of Europe’s Large Hadron Collider last year; I have neither the technical knowledge nor the sensationalist streak to write one of those.
Still, because particle accelerators are (thanks to the LHC) pretty well known these days, they seem like a good place to start.
Particle accelerators, if you don’t know, are essentially very large racetracks for very small dogs. Built in giant, doughnut-shaped tunnels, they’re a place where physicists can steer beams of particles ’round and ’round in ever-faster circles, until—unlike real dog racing, thankfully—the competitors smash into something. In the resulting fireworks, with any luck, discoveries get made, and Ian Sample’s recent book Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science (Basic Books, $25.95) deals, as the title suggests, with the quest for one discovery in particular: the Higgs boson (sometimes called “the God particle”).
The Higgs is a particle predicted by theoretical physics—by a man named Peter Higgs, natch—that’s thought to be responsible for endowing everything in the universe with mass. For theoretical particle physics that’s a relatively exciting idea, but as a story the “hunt” for the Higgs is pretty odd, because, though Sample artfully avoids saying it in such blunt terms, nobody has ever actually come close to finding one in nature—so the book feels like it’s still waiting for an ending. (It’s like watching an episode of House where the patient dies at the end without Hugh Laurie having any idea why.)
What merit Massive does have lies in its provocative synthesis of all the reasons why particle accelerators are a great idea, even given the tiny chance that they might destroy the world. (Actually, says Sample, they might destroy the whole universe—but who’s counting?)
Essentially the case for these high-stakes experiments has two parts: one, that it’s theoretically so unlikely a particle accelerator would cause the end of human existence it’s not worth worrying about; and two, that the potential benefits of discovering the Higgs (or anything else) far outweigh those outlandish worries.
Again, particle physics isn’t my area of expertise, so I won’t address the first part. But I would like to at least give the second a rigorous cross-examination.
Imagine the situation in a slightly different way: you’re looking after your neighbor’s kids, and you have two possible ways to occupy them. First, there’s a Wii. Second, there’s a puzzle, but with a few wrinkles: it has 50 million pieces; you’ve lost the lid so you don’t know what the picture is; and when two particular puzzle pieces are put together in a certain way—you don’t know which ones, or how—it destroys the universe. (This isn’t your father’s Milton Bradley.)
Now, in all likelihood, these kids will be able to fiddle with that puzzle forever without anything bad ever happening, and on the plus side as the picture builds up it turns out to be a highly accurate theory of particle physics. But still: wouldn’t you rather play it safe and give them the Wii?
This might sound like a stupid analogy. Actually, in terms of practical consequences, it’s less analogy than description of the real stakes in particle accelerator experiments. None of the physicists involved can say with any certainty that they won’t destroy the world, and the only concrete benefit they can offer is that they’ll have a better grasp of their esoteric theories. Even Sample, a keen apologist, can’t manage much more than the limp “when we make progress in pure science, technological benefits”—the Internet is his most recent example—“often follow.”
Perhaps that’s true, but note the “often”: is it really worth even the tiny possibility of ending all life on Earth—or in the universe—for the equally small chance that we might come up with the next Facebook?
In any case, regardless of what you think about the philosophical issues, and regardless of how worried you are about a black hole devouring the Earth, the LHC draws an estimated 1,000 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, about enough to power 100,000 American homes for that same period of time—an environmental cost Sample and most other LHC apologists fail to mention. Given how much other scientists are screaming about global warming these days, that alone seems inexcusable: the LHC probably is unlikely to destroy the very fabric of existence, but it may yet destroy life on Earth more indirectly.
Where Massive deals mainly with Peter Higgs and the contemporary hunters for his namesake, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon, and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of the Elements (Little Brown & Co., $24.99) is a more wide-ranging and light-hearted survey of the sundry contributors, over the last several centuries, to that staple of high-school chemistry labs: the periodic table.
Kean’s book is a fascinating collection of character sketches and trivia items—the eponymous disappearing spoon is a reference to a favorite practical joke among chemists, in which a teaspoon is fashioned out of gallium, a metal that looks like aluminum but melts at 84F—and for that reason is generally engaging.
But as with Massive, the central “plot device” here is awkward, and at several points the book feels aimless and unsatisfying. And—also as with Massive—the larger underlying problem seems to be an assumption by the author that the interestingness of stories like this is self-evident; that scientific discovery has merit by definition.
Once again, though, I’m left wondering if that’s true. Is there really enough benefit to society in discovering a theoretical particle like the Higgs—or a theoretical element on the periodic table—to justify the enormous costs, whether real or potential?
That might sound closed-minded, but there should be more to science than getting your name attached to a discovery, and when reading these two books it sometimes feels like that sort of childish competitiveness is the driving force behind a lot of contemporary empirical work. And while some might call that competitiveness part of being a man, it’s not necessarily a sign of being a great man—so instead of maintaining the Become-a-Great-Man-Quickly machine of modern science at its current levels, perhaps its time we turned down the power.
—Particle accelerator photo via Wimox/Flickr