A few days ago, while scanning the New York Times science section, I was so happy to see an essay about particle physics. Then I read said essay and kind of tiptoed back to the main science page, and looked around see if anyone else had seen it.
Of course they had - it was the number one emailed science story almost a week after it ran. And if you're an avid reader of the bloggosphere you've probably seen the many responses to it as well, or maybe even some of the follow up news stories.
You can read the essay here, and yes, I recommend that you do. It will tell you a story that goes something like this: Physicists Holger Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, both well respected in their field, have put forth a series of papers which basically suggest that the Higgs boson, a theorized particle that scientists hope to produce at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, is so abhorrent to nature, that its creation in the future will send ripples backward in time to prevent it from ever being made. And to find out whether or not the LHC will succeed in its quest (or be stopped by the time ripples) we should take a million playing cards, shuffle them, and write "yes" on all but one of them. If we draw the one that says "no" we should stop the experiment right away. Otherwise another big accident will happen and people might die.
So, just really really bonkers.
But maybe it's not? Or maybe it is? Or maybe it depends on how you look at it? Let me state right away that particle physics can sometimes sound crazy (hello, double slit experiment?), and normally I would never challenge two well respected particle physicists in matters of their expertise. So I mostly relied on the physicist bloggers who analyzed the paper to find out if this was as nutty as it sounded. For the most part, the vote called for the crazy police to take these papers away. And many of the bloggers have good reasons to say so. But Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance, (who was quoted in the article in reference to Nielsen's reputation in his field, but not on the papers in question), made a strong case that Nielsen and Ninomiya's scientific argument was, indeed, based on false pretenses, but that it wasn't quite as loopy as other bloggers thought it was. He concluded with this:
And I follow Carroll's arguments about the very base scientific aspects of the papers. It's true that theoreticians sometimes make assertions about how things might be if some aspect of the universe were different, and that's fine. It's good, in fact. It inspires new perspectives and ideas.
Still, Carroll is addressing the underlying physics of the paper - the part that looks like a perfectly acceptable theoretical roast, which other physicists may cut into and chew on. But what is stirring up the most negative responses are the conclusions that Neilsen and Ninomiya made following their scientific assertions, or what I'm calling a thick and meaty helping of crazy sauce. Namely, things like this (from the New York Times Article):
“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” Dr. Nielsen said in an e-mail message. In an unpublished essay, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, he went on, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.”
OK cluck-clucks, now you're asking for it.
Nielsen and Ninomiya start to make some bold statements including but not limited to the idea that it is God who hates the Higgs (Even though he created it? Geez, make up your mind, God.). He hates it so much that he "avoids" it. To avoid it, God (or the time ripples?) went back in time and caused the wiring malfunction at the LHC in 2008 that stopped particle beams for over a year.
First of all, lets agree that this makes no sense. Second, what is up with Nielson and Ninomiya's version of God? He is hanging out ath the LHC? He can't make up his mind about what he likes and dislikes in his own version of reality? Why does he want to avoid the Higgs? Maybe they dated and it ended badly? According to Nielsen and Ninomiya, in order to avoid the Higgs, God will stop the LHC from starting up. So I guess God is like your friend who doesn't want his ex-girlfriend to show up at your party, so he starts telling all your other friends to tell her that the party has been cancelled so that his ex-Higgs girlfriend won't come but won't feel uninvited, and then he goes back in time and causes a wiring problem at your party. God is that guy, I guess.
As much as I'd like to make fun of this and go home, things get more complicated. Nielsen and Ninomiya continue to go really far off the deep end and suggest that not only was the wiring malfunction and resulting explosion at the LHC in 2008, a result of this back-in-time causality (or "bad luck" as they have called it), but they suggest that if their theory is correct, another accident will occur and people could get hurt or even die.
To even make the suggestion that you can predict when and where people will get hurt or die is irresponsible unless you really believe that your theory is correct. If lives are at stake then how can we not take this seriously? Are we supposed to take this as a warning? If something does go wrong will they be there wagging their fingers saying 'we told you so'? These are real people you're talking about. It's really tasteless.
The other thing these scientists need to consider is that once you take a dip in the noodle pool, a handful of lemmings are bound to follow you in. Both the NY Times and the Times online suggest that perhaps the recent arrest of a CERN scientist with suspected terrorist ties was also part of the time-traveling Higgs jinx. Lets just point out right away that this arrest wouldn't put a dent in the effort to get the LHC running, but who am I to try and explain how jinxes work? I am not a jinx scientist.
But I really shouldn't call these scientists or their papers legally insane, because what I really mean is that they are unrealistic, outlandish and unscientific. But also because I'm not a doctor. A trained physician would tell me that there are distinct differences in the terminology I've been throwing around so casually. "Bonkers," might mean a chemical imbalance while "riding the crazy train" might mean emotionally disturbed. "Bananas" and "coconuts," though they are both fruit, could have very different meanings in the field of mental health. So I try not to toss them around lightly.
And I expect the same as a science writer. It is my job to turn concrete mathematics and nature into words - words which are imperfect and incomplete compared to the things they describe. Yet we do have definitions for those words and we hold onto those because that's all we have. I feel that the most reckless thing these authors did was mix the word "luck" into this pot of ga-ga soup (oops). The media also ran with that, and now we have a grab bag of terms that have been wrongly placed on equal footing: randomness and probability, fate, luck, and even sci-fi (that was FOX, but still).
I remember that a non-scientist classmate of mine in our course "The Philosophy of Physics," was confused by the idea that a "random" series of events, over time, will come to evenly distribute themselves based on the probability of each event. So, when you flip a coin, each toss is totally unaffected by the previous toss. Whether you got heads or tales the first time, you have equal chance of flipping heads or tales the second time. And yet, you end up with 50% heads and 50% tales if you flip it a large number of times. It feels like that kind of even distribution has to be planned - but it's not. It's probability. Our colloquial use of "random" has come to mean peculiar or out of place, and those nice neat numbers sort of conflict with that. In physics, the beauty of randomness is that it is totally predictable to the extent that you know the probabilities. So even when the odds are reat, you never know when someone will win the lottery twice.
"Luck," on the other hand, refers to something determined by an outside force. Lady luck is on your side and she's helping you out at the craps tables. And you know what? That is cheating. Tell lady luck to leave before you both get arrested.
But the problems facing the LHC don't have anything to do with luck or with probability. They have distinct scientific causes that have been identified and are being fixed. This is the difference between scientific and non-scientific thinking. Non-scientific thinking will accept an answer (like luck) and not pursue a deeper cause, while scientific thinking searches for a cause. There's a TV show about this, people. And the LHC is the largest machine ever built EVER. It's not that weird that there are some kinks that need to be worked out.
I wish I could say that this story was simply a fascinating effort by physicists to push the limits of how and where we can apply our physics knowledge. In the 1980's, respected (and awesome) physicist Kip Thorne wrote a paper about the possibility of time travel. Immediately after it's submission, one of his friends and colleagues called his wife and asked if everything was OK. But Thorne wasn't losing it - he just saw an age-old question and did his best to apply what he knew about the world to answer it. He started a bit of a rage and more physicists decided, what the heck? Lets propose some theoretical situations and see what we can do with them. There's a book about it called The New Time Travelers. Thorne kept all his marbles in one bag and never claimed that anything he observed in the world was evidence of time travel, and he is still a highly respected physicist.
Had the Nielsen/Ninomiya papers gone in the same direction, it might have been a neat thing to think about. Can physics prove the existence of fate? Could backward causality be the physical equivalent of fate? Could fate exist in some universes but not in ours?
I don't know. And these papers can't tell me because they are drunk on fairy wine. But instead of dancing off into the woods, they are going to show up in at my house. As more media outlets pick up on the story and have their own run at it, public questions about it will build and science will have to field them, plus take the time to dispel the really bad rumors and once again comfort folks into understanding that the LHC is not a doomsday machine, nor is it jinxed by God.
But I can't really blame the media. This is a really interesting story. And we. love. the crazy. We love it so much. This made for a very entertaining essay I must admit. Should we let the media do what they want and not worry what bits they pick up to report to the public? Again, Carroll at Cosmic Variance took a unique stand:
"...I’ve always found it pretty paternalistic and condescending to claim that we should shield the public from speculative science until it’s been established one way or the other. The public are grown-ups, and we should assume the best of them rather than the worst. There’s nothing wrong with letting them in on the debates about crazy-sounding ideas that we professional scientists enjoy as our stock in trade."
I don't know here. If we're talking about driving a car or something, then sure, the fact that someone is an adult means I should trust them more than...kids, I guess? But does 'assuming the best' about people mean assuming they can tell the difference between crazy ideas in quantum physics and non-crazy ones? It shouldn't, because unless they're trained as physicists, then they probably can't. Again - double slit experiment. SOUNDS BONKERS! But it's true! There are those folks who have total faith in scientists to achieve just about anything (and want to know why the hell we haven't) and those who doubt science on a fundamental level and don't trust anything it has to say. Either way it doesn't come down to intention, it comes down to education.
Last year, when a couple of unqualified people accused the LHC of being a "doomsday machine" that could blow up the world or swallow it in a black hole, CERN received far more press than it ever could have hoped for even if it had started spontaneously producing milkshakes. To this day that is the number one question I get when I tell people I write about particle physics and it gets a lot of people excited about seeing it start up. (On a side note - Walter Wagner, who thinks the LHC will destroy the world, filed a similar law suit against the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Lab, which started up in 2000.)
Was it worth the cost?
Once you catch people's attention, science has a lot to offer and I think we may have got some people interested who weren't before, or at least now a new audience of people are aware that this thing exists. But a lot of people will never be convinced that the LHC won't blow up the world, and I think a lot of people are still confused about the accusations. I would never dream of using censorship in any form as a solution - so I guess here we are fielding questions about some papers by Captain Bananas and his first mate Coconut Harry (oh, euphemisms). And I do hope that the public will see this as a chance to take part in science dialogue. So I'll just keep repeating that phrase "there's no such thing as bad publicity. There's no such thing as bad publicity..." while clicking my heels and dreaming of calmer days.
I leave you with laughter.
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