Categorized | Personal, Science

The Scientific Method and the Thrill of the Hunt

*Reflections from CERN Philippines School

Two years ago, the world was rocked by the news of a certain ‘God particle’ or the Higgs Boson being discovered. It was nicknamed the ‘God particle’ for it is a giver of mass. The story behind the nickname is actually more complicated than we thought. It used to be called the toilet particle and then the “god damned” particle because it was very hard to find. They just dropped the damned for god was more attractive. Any particle that interacts with the Higgs field will feel some kind of resistance (Here’s a video). You can think of a spoon that you can easily move around air or vacuum but you’ll feel that resistance when you try to stir a pot of honey. That honey is like the Higgs field and the spoon is the particle that gains mass.


The Higgs now looks like a simple concept for some people, so what was the hullabaloo all about? Fifty years ago a number of theoretical physicists wrote about what we now call the Higgs field and mechanism. Peter Higgs, 2013 Nobel laureate for physics (with Francois Englert), was the first to note that there was a massive particle associated with the symmetry breaking. The field and the particle were just like figments of their imagination. They used math and the known laws of physics to predict their existence. Lo and behold, they have found the particle after a long time in a 27-km circular collider in CERN.

A story like this in science is not new. Albert Einstein made testable predictions in his General Theory of Relativity (GR). Arthur Eddington’s team first confirmed his theory by observing the 1919 solar eclipse. Other expeditions made further confirmation and until now experiments, huge observations show GR is correct even in regions up to 3.5 million light years away from us. There is also the story of silent man Paul Dirac, developing an equation that predicted the existence of antiparticles that correspond to most kind of particles. It has the same mass and opposite charge of a particle. Then there’s also the recent BICEP2 detection of primordial gravitational waves which, if confirmed by another independent research groups like the European Space Agency’s Planck, may just have provided direct evidence of cosmic inflation.

The examples above show us a process in science. You make a guess, you test if it is correct and if it does not try something else. In school, we call it the scientific method (although it’s not as clean as we think it is). Richard Feynman beautifully describes this method in his 1964 lecture in Cornell University.

“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.”

What now for particle physics?

With the Higgs found and the Standard Model looking like it all its puzzle pieces have been put in place, is there anything else to search for? It turns out that the Higgs may just be a Higgs and that the particle physicists all over the world are looking for its cousins or brothers and sisters through more precise and accurate measurements in particle collisions. The Large Hadron Collider has just begun warming up for its reopening in 2015 at an energy scale of 13-14TeV, about twice as large that of the energy used when the Higgs was found. With that higher energy, researchers can now scour the rubble from the collisions at an even higher resolution. Keeping in mind the famous equation E = mc2, this also means that heavier particles may be produced. The production rate of known particles will be enhanced and that will allow for more precision measurements.

With the Standard Model accounting for merely 4% of what constitutes the universe, we certainly are far from having a complete understanding of nature. More physics, new ways of thinking and new technologies are necessary. But with the upgrade in the LHC, two paramount searches are underway – the search for supersymmetric particles and what dark matter is. Supersymmetry is not only beautiful mathematically, but it also gives out testable predictions. Dark matter on the other hand, accounts for some discrepancies between what have been observed in galaxies and what have been predicted by current models in cosmology. All observations point to the existence of dark matter. We just have to figure out what constitutes dark matter and if there are really any supersymmetric particles.

The search for the smallest of things is massive. It requires the collaboration of thousands of researchers from over 100 countries in the world. Not to mention, it costs billions of dollars. Is it worth it? Well, for most scientists, satisfying one’s “holy” curiosity is enough. Even if we already know that this search spurs the development of new technologies that are economically beneficial, personally, experiencing the thrill of the hunt alone is worth more than whatever practical benefit it can give. Particle smashing, scouring the rubble, building machines that replicates the big bang – sounds like fun to me.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.