It’s OK, nobody else gets it either

The announcement that scientists are close to confirming the existing of Higgs boson is not setting the world afire as you might at first think. It is, after all, a major discovery that helps us understand the universe, even though we can’t really understand the thing that might help us understand the universe.

The Atlantic’s Robert Wright suggests that the human brain simply isn’t built to understand these things.

For the rest of us, I suspect, the Higgs belongs in the same category as various other parts of modern physics: It is yet more evidence that the human mind, to the extent that it was designed by natural selection to truly comprehend anything at all, was designed to comprehend the macroscopic world, not the microscopic world.

So, as for the question of what this Higgs boson thing ultimately “means”: It means we should all try to have some intellectual humility, especially when opining on grand philosophical matters, because the thing we’re using to try to understand the world–the human brain–is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty crude instrument. Or, I should say: That’s what I think the Higgs Boson means.

If you’re having a hard time getting your head around the near discovery, it’s OK.

But there’s another aspect of the discovery that seems to be getting more attention today than the discovery itself; scientists chiding the United States for watching it happen.

This statement, from Dr. Michael Gamble, the novelist and former Los Alamos nuclear scientist, arrived in the inbox a few minutes ago:

The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was not too big to fail. Although it was a massive opportunity for the United States to maintain its primacy in high-energy physics and basic research, the SSC was not sufficiently big on the federal funding list back in the early 1990s even to get built.

I’ll admit that headlines extolling an atom smasher in Waxahachie, Texas, may not be as provocative as those from Geneva, one of the world’s most sophisticated cities. But as an American, the thrill of having our every iota of progress toward a commendable scientific goal, such as detecting and quantifying the Higgs boson, broadcast around the globe would have pleased me immeasurably. And, I believe, would have captivated and drawn a superior caliber of young talent to American scientific endeavors, just as the Apollo 11 Mission awed me as a boy and set me on a trajectoryof scientific study.

How the kingpins of CERN’s accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), have lauded their detector collaborations, ATLAS and CMS. At the SSC there was the SDC collaboration and GEM (gammas, electrons, and muons), to whose design engineering and management I contributed proudly. CERN’s official announcement that ATLAS has distinguished a specific decay mode of the Higgs boson to a statistical accuracy of 5 sigma (better than one in a million) has incited celebration throughout Europe and beyond. CERN currently boasts 20 member countries, all European, with Israel and others seeking membership. The United States is a lowly observer nation — a paying observer, mind you — along with another half dozen countries.

Why so many countries? What is in it for them? CERN is, and the SSC would have been, a high-energy physics “user facility.” Other nations are welcome to design experiments and to make use of the energetic spew from the LHC’s hadron collisions. For a price, a hefty price.The United States contributes every year to CERN’s $1 billion budget. Perhaps Congress forgot this when voting down continued funding for the SSC, after investing approximately $2 billion and digging about 14 miles of underground tunnel. The SSC’s hadrons would have been accelerated in that tunnel to 40 TeV, creating a center-of-mass frame impact energy almost triple that of CERN’s LHC, positioning the SSC for meaningful follow-on research after nailing the Higgs.

Alas, the bank-breaking cost of the SSC and the absence of substantial international contributions were cited in its abandonment. Let this be clear: For about $8 billion, the United States let slip away the opportunity to own outright the world’s most modern and potentially most sensational scientific platform. How many hundreds of billions of economic stimulus dollars were spent ineffectually? How many thousands of billions of dollars in recent history did the Federal Reserve wager on commitments to domestic and foreign banks without deigning to inform their overseers? The exact sums would be difficult to calculate, but the sting of the questions is the point.

The most grievous aspect of this situation is neither the surfeit of glowing international press, nor the inevitable Nobel Prize, nor even the strong draw of brilliance to the sciences from which Europe will benefit. It is the fact that high-energy physics — similar to a dominant space program and nuclear science, which won my heart as an undergrad — was Made in America. And we have lost not only our leadership positions in these sciences but perhaps our relevance.

Had the SSC detected and quantified the God particle, it could have offered a glimmer of salvation in this time of near-godforsaken scientific decline and social unrest in our country. One can only hope that Americans will regroup and astonish the world by being first to accomplish something of enormous scientific import, perhaps elaborating Einstein’s grand unification theory. I believe we can do it. But it’ll require technical genius, political will, and a lot of guts.

Congress canceled a supercollider project in the U.S. in 1993. Its remnants can still be found in Texas.