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Reason, Science, Technology, and the strange Higgs Boson

July 17, 2012

I was provoked to write this text by the post of a fellow blogger who wrote about the reported breakthrough in the quest for the Higgs boson by physicists using the gigantic Hadron Collider of the CERN research facilities near Geneva in Switzerland.

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez titled her blog post provocatively “What Good is a Higgs Boson When the Planet is Burning?” and caused quite a stir, evident by many mostly negative and often acrimonious comments on her blog and on the news aggregator site Common Dreams, where the text also was published.

I didn’t take part in the ensuing discussion because I wanted to think about the matter thoroughly. Many of the negative comments raised eminent questions and contained interesting and at first glance reasonable points which could not be easily dismissed.

I also generally refrain from taking part in comment thread disputes because the exchanges in comment sections often descent into cock fights or even name calling. Many comment sections of popular news sites or blogs are infiltrated by professional spoilers, agent provocateurs, shills (paid agents), dupes, and other non-categorizable idiots.

Common Dreams a few month ago found out (probably by checking the IP addresses) that some notorious commenters had created up to 50 fake identities and the website administrators changed their comment section regime to get rid of spoilers but it seems they didn’t succeed.

The new system can be nearly as easily duped as the old one because people again are able to set up various accounts using proxy servers and many people don’t even need proxies because they have dynamic IP’s which change every time the user logs in. Government agents will not need to go to such lengths, as they will have any number of computers and/or internet IPs to their disposal.

Furthermore the Internet IP alone is not enough to recognize an individual and even the MAC number, which identifies the hardware (usually the network adapter in a computer) can be faked with software tricks and MAC number identification is not a fail-safe method.

Fortunately!

I don’t visit Common Dreams anymore (for reasons I explained in earlier blog posts) but I was interested in the reaction to the disputed text of Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez and checked the comments on Common Dreams in addition to the comments on her blog.

Not surprisingly the comment section there is still highjacked by the same clique of macho windbags, braggarts, clownish raconteurs, and narcissists that irritated me in former times when I still occasionally was visiting the site.

The macho crowd was infuriated that a woman had dared to write about a scientific issue because they regard science and technology as an exclusively male area. They used formulations like:

“Sorry, Jennifer, but the way you’re thinking about science is ridiculous.”

“Your post is strikingly dyspeptic.”

“This article reflects an unfortunately common and narrow minded view about science.”

“This kind of vulgar utilitarianism is not only radically anti-intellectual, it’s also deeply complicit in the logic of the capitalist system itself.”

“…your ridiculous attack against the people that INCREASE knowledge.”

“Just because SHE isn’t excited, then we shouldn’t be excited. I don’t get that attitude. This could have been a positive article, and it is just a whine-fest.”

“The professor is missing the point. What’s more, she actually knows she’s missing the point, but does not recognize her cognitive dissonance.”

“…this seems a tad anti-intellectual.”

“She is unfortunately very close to giving us an example here of left-wing anti-intellectualism.”

“The confusion de Hernandez expresses about how science works reminds me of Carl Sagan’s Westminster Project.”

“Where is Michelle Bachmann’s byline on this piece? Surely Michelle could find a kindred spirit in many of the views expressed.”

Many of the comments were culminating in the conclusion that Jennifer (like all women of course) simply doesn’t understand science. It was also denounced several times that she uses the internet, a technical invention which was only made possible by advanced physical understanding and in which Tim Berners-Lee, NASA, and CERN played a role. A few commenters stated that the authors field, which is comparative literature and gender studies, doesn’t contribute anything to solving the problem of climate change and that alone for this aspect she was not well positioned to criticize scientists in other fields.
There were a few voices of reason and they made the following points:

The physics necessary to invent radio and television came from a direction that no one would have predicted and the space program in the 60s seemed pointless to many who were concerned about the Vietnam War. Yet out of the space program came the technologies that allowed Personal Computers and several other helpful technologies to evolve.

It still takes the scientific method to prove or disprove something. This is best done in an environment free of political or social agenda. Instead, the polarization of our society has fostered a harsh climate for scientific research that rivals the Inquisition and Galileo’s experience.

Instead of telling the scientists what they should be doing, as the article suggests, we should tell our governments and industries and society to do all they can to support science, to fund it, to teach it correctly in our schools, to provide scholarships for future scientists. The more scientists we have studying everything, the better!

CERN is a relatively expensive publicly funded research institution committed to pure science and exemplifies a European model of research that is dying in the USA. Although CERN was not created to address global climate change, it is exactly the sort of large, international, cooperative scientific venture — acting in the “public good” — that will be required to address climate change.

One comment was especially well formulated and convincing:

Science is one of the few areas where humans actually seem able to showcase transcendent values. Some of the keenest human minds are grappling with mind-bogglingly complex mathematics & research to dig out the fundamental secrets of the universe.

Higgs and the other physicists are not searching for new ways to trap students in debt, novel methods of crowd control, or ever more lethal drone technology. That’s the corporate plutocracy working hand in glove with the their friends at the Pentagon.

The CERN research is collective knowledge pursued in a spirit of “public good” by some of the most committed intellects on the planet, and deserves accolades — not petty, sour, and ill-informed humbuggery.

Maybe if more people are inspired by this sort of grand vision then we might yet succeed in saving the planet from human greed and myopia.
Well, these are a lot of skillful combined words to argue in favor of an expensive scientific laboratory (the Large Hadron Collider), yet in order to judge the merits of the formulations one has to be aware that the commenters base their argumentation, their reasoning on certain axioms (principles) which may or may not be universally accepted or shared by others.

Axioms are basic beliefs which we were told in our youth or which arose from experience. I try to keep my belief system lean, basically I believe in the scientific method (trial and error) and in love, empathy, kindness. That’s it.

I have written about that all in earlier blog posts and I intend to write about it again and shed a light on these issues from different angles but right here now for practical reasons I only want to recall some definitions that will make my final conclusions more understandable. As I titled my blog post Reason, Science, Technology, and the strange Higgs Boson I will restrain myself to the in the title used terms.

Basic Definitions

Reason: In most dictionaries reason is defined as the basis or motives for an action, decision, or conviction. I define reasoning as the computation process in the working memory (also called central executive) which is using words, symbols, and graphics as representations of complex matters. This process is often described as common sense, grammar, logic. Reason is a powerful tool of the human brain but vastly overrated in comparison to pattern recognition, which is used by intuition, imagination, fantasy.

Science: Two dictionary definitions are useful, one defines science as the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena, the other sees it as the systematic study of structures and behaviors of the physical and natural world. I personally view science as the systematical investigation and exploration of the world, the creation of speculative theories to explain natural phenomenas and the testing of these theories with trial and error, the accumulation of knowledge and the passing of this knowledge  across generations via oral traditions, pictures, books, film, digital storage.

Technology: There are a myriad of definitions but in the end they all mean, that technology is the practical application of knowledge. Technology is the creation of tools using the findings of science. Technology is possible by our adept and deft fingers, who enabled our ancestors to split stones, to weave and plait branches, to make fire, and from there on to create more and more sophisticated tools and weapons to achieve supremacy in the animal world.

Elephants, dolphins, whales would have been all intelligent enough to rule the world but they didn’t have the skilled fingers to create tools.

Higgs Boson: The Higgs boson is a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle with zero electric charge, zero spin, and mass greater than zero, predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. The Higgs boson is postulated to interact with other particles in such a way as to impart mass to them and its existence would explain the masses of the elementary particles.

That says it all!
I have found over the years, that multi-language capabilities are very helpful. Bilingual or multilingual speakers are in average more intelligent and capable than their monolingual peers. I explain this with the fact, that the memory patterns in our brain representing words and symbols are the modules / blocks / particles that we use for reasoning.

To have more words and symbols at ones disposal, even if they mean the same item, is helpful because one word alone can mean different things and is often not sufficient to describe and pinpoint exactly the meant item.

If I would have time I would like to learn Chinese (Mandarin) and I would also like to increase my capabilities in mathematics (a field which I consider to be in fact a language). I always enjoyed boolean algebra (AND, OR, NOT), which I needed for developing digital circuits and for programming.

The definition of the Higgs boson is not using a separate language, but it uses special terms that refer to instances and equations of physical mathematics. The Higgs Boson is not something that any human being ever will be able to see or feel or understand, it is a mathematical construct to make a speculative scientific theory (the Standard Model of Particle Physics) work.

We have to face it, our senses are limited, our brain capacity is limited.

We hear only a part of the audio waves (between 16 and 18,000 hertz) we see only a tiny part of the electro magnetic spectrum (the visible light), and there may be many physical phenomena that we are not aware of because our senses are not able to detect them.

The working memory areas in our brain can keep not more than 8 to 16 neuronal clusters activated at the same time, which means that not more than 8 to 16 items can be combined, compared, correlated, equated at the same time. That is not much when the world around us indeed is, as many scientist now agree, a nonlinear dynamical system (chaos theory, statistical mathematics, information theory).

Pattern recognition is more powerful and can discover, compare, merge, blend complex structures which our rational thinking (reasoning) with its 8 to 16 item limit never would be able even to detect. But pattern recognition cannot easily interact (be connected via an interface) with our external (outsourced) memory and intelligence (often also described as extended mind), which is provided by pictures, books, calculators, computers, electronic controllers, digital databases, search engines.

So we are stuck with reason, enhanced by written down mathematical equations, helped not insignificantly by pattern recognition fueled intuition, in our quest to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge and in our restless effort to create more and more sophisticated technical tools based on physical phenomena that our senses cannot detect and our brain cannot really understand.

Before I forget, the hardwired “seeking system” in our brain which evolved in many million years of evolution to prompt the search for food and a mate explains perfectly our quest for scientific discoveries. Researching, exploring, discovering lies in our blood, it is part of our nature. Who can blame the theoretical physicists who get excited when they have a powerful toy as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) at their disposal?

The LHC is basically trial and error to find out if some speculative scientific theories like  the Standard Model of Particle Physics, String Theory, Big Bang Theory, Dark Matter Theory have any merit and can be used for developing new technologies (meaning new tools and new weapons).

Maybe the scientific experiments of CERN will show us new ways to tinker with physics and enable us to develop devices and apparatuses even more powerful than nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants.
I always was fascinated by technology and started in my youngest years with disassembling discarded mechanical clocks and old radios. Later I built my own computers (with 6502 and 68000 CPUs) and even wrote an operating system in assembler. I still have some of the texts which were written on the home made computers. I used a self designed RS-232 interface to transfer them to the Atari ST computers which replaced my old machines. From there the texts were transferred via floppy disk to the Macs which I use today.

I’m glad that Fert and Gruenberg discovered GRM (giant magnetoresistance, also referred to as anisotropic magnetoresistance, a property of materials that arises from electron spin-orbit coupling). Without GRM, my computer hard drives would not be able to store 2,000 Gigabyte of data.

I use now of course flash memory based solid state drives for all boot volumes, but the GRM based hard drives are still my prime mass storage devices. Flash memory btw utilizes also some wicked technological tricks and the algorithms of the firmware are only understandable to experts with solid mathematical training. The same applies for mathematical algorithms of data packet transfers, of coding, compressing, routing, segmenting – reassembling, and other processes which make internet and cell phone transmissions possible. All this is beyond the understanding of an average person which means that most of us depend on the knowledge of the technical experts.

Well, I see some potential in new technologies and maybe one day scientific discoveries will let my dream come true and will enable ethical engineers and technicians to develop and manufacture tools that disable weapons and explosives or render them unreliable, thereby hurting the warriors themselves.

Maybe one day the ammunition will explode in the pockets of the soldiers, mercenaries, insurgents, terrorists, bombs will fail to go off, drones will turn back and destroy their own basis.

I’m just dreaming…

Back to reality again and back to the prospect that new scientific discoveries will rather be used to build more horrific weapons instead of disabling weapons. Albert Einstein saw it coming, documented by his often cited statements: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive.” And: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

I don’t know what I could do beyond completely reorganizing my life and writing these blog posts to promote a new kind of thinking, a paradigm change.

Any ideas, hints, advice would be appreciated!
Returning to Jennifer’s blog post about the Higgs Boson.

I’m against big and expensive technological projects like nuclear power plants, space exploration, big industrial facilities. I also oppose large-scale infrastructure projects like dams and river diversions, highway networks and long tunnels, planned cities and skyscrapers.

All these mega-projects need unimaginable high sums of money, provided by wealthy corporations or the tax payer. The investments may pay off or not, it always is high risk gambling on a large scale — a mega scale. Most of these projects limit the risks for the private stakeholders and like in every other area of the economy the profits are private while losses are socialized (for example: TEPCO, the owner of Fukushima Daiichi, is now nationalized and will be dismantled).

The LHC certainly falls into this category of mega projects. It took ten years to build and it consists of a 27 kilometer long tunnel with 1,600 superconducting magnets, cooled down to minus 271 degree Celsius with 100 tons of liquid helium. The total costs will be between 6 and 10 billion US$, the power consumption is 120 megawatt (the capacity of nuclear reactors reaches from 600 to 1,200 megawatt).

==========

I did not take part in the discussion because I didn’t want to set up an account on Common Dreams, on Jennifer’s blog there was only one rogue individual criticizing the post and this person was easily repelled by her loyal readers.

I did not take part in the discussion but I support Jennifer’s conclusion that the expenses for CERNs LHC are not justifiable in the omnipresence of droughts, food shortages, polluted water, and human misery in general. The world is in dire straits and I wish there was money spent to stop the chemical pollution of the biosphere, the habitat destruction, the biodiversity loss, and the human caused climate change. Scientific research in all areas and of course also in particle physics should be maintained, but not in the form of mega-projects.
I did not take part in the discussion because I don’t completely agree with Jennifer’s text and there was no way to voice my reservations without the appearance of colluding with the macho crowd.

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez writes: “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.”

And continues two paragraphs later: “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.”

This is factual wrong, because no combination of green technologies is sufficient to replace the resources that fossil fuels today are providing to Western consumers. Alternative energy supplies only would be sufficient if everyone in the West would be willing to adopt a modest lifestyle as it is common in third world countries.

Accomplishing a stop of global warming and a recuperation of the biosphere will not only require massive changes in technology but also fundamental changes in society and a very different way of life.

Todays Western societies are characterized by competition (instead of cooperation), by big and powerful organizations (corporations, lobbying groups, governments), by personal wealth and heritage (the 1,200 Forbes billionaires, of which 370 inherited their money).

It is surely difficult for an US-American to envision any solution where businesses are not making profits, where factories are not constantly producing new stuff, where user demand and the GDP doesn’t endlessly grow. 

Lets go shopping for solar panels and geothermal pumps, its win-win for everybody!

Except for the population near the Chinese factories where the solar panels are produced and except for the population of the areas where the minerals for the new stuff are extracted and refined. For these unfortunate humans its lose-lose.

In 2008 the average energy consumption of US inhabitants was 87,216 kWh, of Europeans 40,821 kWh, of Chinese 18,608 kWh, of Indians 6,280 kWh. Europeans lead quite splendid lives with less than half the energy US-Americans need and apart from that fact Europeans would even easily be able to cut their energy consumption in half without experiencing much discomfort.

Question: Why does nobody promote energy saving and higher energy efficiency as solution to environmental problems?

Answer: There are no insane profits to be made, the economy will shrink, people will have to change their life, learn new ways, and forget about anything they were told throughout their lives by mass media advertising; people will have to start thinking and searching for intelligent solutions instead of going to the mall and indulge in shopping.

Creative thinking, thinking by oneself can be very demanding and exhausting….
When I red the title of Jennifer’s blog post I thought first, that the formulation “...When the Planet is Burning” meant the raging wars all around the world, the steadily increasing weapons production, the military buildup, the vast amounts of resources that are wasted by the military machines.

I thought that she would be writing about the wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, about the worldwide military expenditures of between 1,6 and 2 trillion US$, about Agent Orange, leaks of mustard gas and sarin depots, white phosphorus in Gaza, depleted uranium in Serbia, Iraq (Fallujah), Libya, the toxic “burn pits” in Afghanistan, the massacres of wales and dolphins by military sonar pings, the eight nuclear powered submarines that have sunk until now.

The US military uses as much oil as Sweden, the US military budget is 670 billion US$ (including the hidden and misnamed budget positions rather one trillion US$).

The 6 to 10 billion US$ for the Large Hadron Collider are nothing compared to that, the new Ohio-class submarines for the US-Navy SSBN(X) would cost at least 10 billion US$ each.

==========

Dear Jennifer, I hope that my objection to your blog post will not complicate our until now amiable and fruitful exchange. We all have to find our own way at our own pace, please do not misunderstand my response to your text as lecturing — who am I to lecture somebody else?

Peace!

One comment

  1. Thank you so much, Mato, for your thoughtful response to my controversial post on the Higgs Boson and our social priorities for the immediate future!

    You’re right, I could have just as easily been talking about war as about AGW when I referred to our planet burning. I write mostly about climate change because I see this as trumping every other issue we face on the planet, although I’ve spent most of my life focusing on smaller, more local battles like sexism, racism, homophobia, military culture & war. Each of these is a huge, multifaceted problem, but they will all be moot in the short run if we don’t get our collective act together to stop global warming, or at least to mitigate and adapt (I don’t know that the trend we’ve begun can be stopped now.

    As usual, you are right on target when you criticize the green tech approach to solving the problem of climate change, and many groups at the Rio+20 were already making brilliant critiques of the blatant takeover of the so-called green economy by big business. It’s so true that what we need is to scale down our consumption, radically–and if we don’t do it ourselves, the Earth will do it for us, and soon!

    When I went to the Strategies for a New Economy conference in June, many of the presenters were talking about reducing consumption and completely reorganizing our society, with an emphasis on re-localization of food supplies, distributed energy, and a strong move away from growth as a benchmark of success. The conference was sold out and streamed live to an audience of thousands worldwide. So there is great interest in taking a new and serious look at these issues.

    Thank you again for responding so thoroughly to my posts, I value your feedback tremendously!

    Like



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