We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

So if not that, then what?

I just noticed an interesting set of musing about Professor Shahriar Afshar, wondering fearfully what theorist will do if the Large Hadron Collider fails to find the mysterious Higgs Boson:

The controversial physicist, whose Afshar experiment has already found a loophole in quantum theory, said that unless the scientific community starts contemplating a “plan B”, failure could lead to “chaos and infighting”.

He said failure will undermine more than a hundred years of scientific theory and undermine some of the mainstays of scientific thinking, the Standard Model, a general theory of how particles fit together to create matter. It would also lead to bitter recriminations and infighting among the different scientists and a complete loss of confidence among the general public and taxpayer, he said.

This made me wonder if not finding the Higgs Boson would necessarily be a Bad Thing if it means Big Science is less likely to get the hapless taxpayer on the hook to pay for the latest research toys. But more importantly, also makes me wonder why scrapping a failed theory (if that is how it turns out) and seeking to come up with better ones is grounds for such trepidation. What the good professor sees as “chaos and infighting” sounds like fresh opportunities for intellectual enquiry to me, but then I do not have any tax funded sacred cows in danger of getting defunded. Just sayin’.

44 comments to So if not that, then what?

  • Agreed. I can’t see how it’s not all in the empirical day’s work for science to put up a hypothesis, test it, find it wanting and put up a new one.

  • Indeed. While the hypothetical Higgs boson, as the agent of transfer in the Higgs field, is currently the favourite option when it comes to explaining how mass and gravitation might work, it’s not the only runner.

    As with the Michaelson-Morley experiment (which attempted to find a preferred reference frame using interferometry), failure to achieve the desired result – ie, exhaustive scanning for a Higgs-behaviour particle across its theoretical energy range and not finding it – would be just as significant as success.

    In fact, failure to find the Higgs boson would likely revitalise research into other possible solutions.

  • Oh, forgot to mention; string theory is a possible Plan B, with the unfortunate provisos that we’d need to solve a whole bunch of 9-dimensional equations first, and then (if the most likely currently hypothesised conclusions are the ones that drop out after this) harness the power of a couple of stars to drive a collider with a diameter a bit larger than the diameter of Pluto’s orbit, in order to get the kind of resolution needed.

    Reality’s rarely simple :-). Brian Greene does a very nice job of describing some current state of the art thinking about it, though.

  • Sarah

    Perhaps he has just heard a whisper of the Electric Universe theory – following the rules of Plasma Physics – as indicated by Halton Arp?

  • The Standard Model of particle theory is generally considered a good theory, in the sense that it predicts a great many things quite accurately, many of which were predicted and then confirmed by experiment.

    But if its prediction of the Higgs Boson were to turn out to be wrong, we would have learned something and there would be lots more work for theorists to do. As other people have said, this is how good science proceeds.

  • Scientists don’t mind if experiments don’t give the results they were expecting, as long as they provide useful information. If the theory is shown to be wrong we* patch it up, or form a new hypothesis, design another experiment, and try again.

    The recurring nightmare of pure mathematicians is in fact that the field might be finite, to discover one day that there is no more maths, it’s all been done. Finding out we still don’t know something isn’t a problem.

    *I say we. It’s a long time since I was an active scientist, but it’s like riding a bike, or supporting Meadowbank Thistle. It becomes part of what you are.

  • Alsadius

    They don’t want to fail because making up a new theory of the fundamental physics of the universe is hard, annoying work, and they’re all too old to be the ones who do it successfully. And of course, pride gets in the way – you’d rather be right than wrong about this stuff. This seems like a normal human reaction, philosophy of science or no.

  • The Standard Model of particle theory is generally considered a good theory, in the sense that it predicts a great many things quite accurately, many of which were predicted and then confirmed by experiment.

    Replace ‘The Standard Model of particle theory’ with ‘Newtonian physics’, and thank god for having lived long enough to see that there is nothing new under the sun:-)

  • Oh, and what Alsadius said, if only the guy in the quote didn’t mention the taxpayers…

  • John B

    Reality, while complex in its presentation, is simple in principle. All things, known and understood, are simple.
    All the rest is a scientific version of Keynesism. Either not understood by its proponents, or made up to confuse those with the “greater wisdom” understood by the few, and is part of the power game.
    The power game has no place in libertarianism or those who truly love freedom.
    The power game sucks.

  • Dale Amon

    It would perhaps be theoretical chaos but it would be an exciting time to be a Physics grad student! The fun in Science is chasing the fox, not the recounting of previous captures. :-)

  • Alice

    Silly man! He wants physicists to have the kudos of creating “a complete loss of confidence among the general public and taxpayer”.

    Hey pal! The climate warming crowd got there firstest with the mostest, and don’t you forget it. Uppity high energy physicist!

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Let me offer a radical notion: that just as the nature of a photon depends on our expectations, so, by (a fair bit of) extension, does the nature of all other process. In other words, physics tends to find what it’s looking for when and because there’s a consensus view of what it’s looking for.

    Thus, whether or not the Higgs Boson is found may depend on the quality of physicists’ belief in it; but even its being found may not say anything fundamental about a universe whose functioning is malleable by will.

    There’s a bit of logic behind this admittedly odd idea but I’m not even going to try to get into it here.

  • RRS

    Test post, since the bot hit and earlier post on another thread never showed.

    (odd, because I do not see any posts from you pending… we might have had a server burp and your post got eaten by the internet goblins)

  • newrouter

    variation of “too big to fail”

  • newrouter

    also this is related (via instapundit):

    Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up

  • Dale Amon

    I suspect most persons here would not know a gauge theory if it ran into them. I will not claim to be one who has spent a lifetime looking at those mathematics, but there is a great deal of beauty in them. If there is no Higgs Boson then things will get very difficult because the current theories predict things exceedingly well. Electroweak theory predicts accurately to an astounding number of decimal places.

    If you want to get a handle on the physics, go to wikipedia and look up ‘gauge theory’.

  • A

    Something that does not surprise me in this article is the lack of accuracy. A quick look at the wiki page tells us that it is doubtful that the experiment they mention actually “found a loophole in quantum theory”. Not that the journalist was going to bother checking… or missing the opportunity of making big-sounding statements

  • I suspect most persons here would not know a gauge theory if it ran into them.

    I wrote an undergraduate honours dissertation on Lie Groups once. Alas, that was a long time ago and I don’t remember very much of it. I should probably refresh my memory.

  • “He said failure will undermine more than a hundred years of scientific theory and undermine some of the mainstays of scientific thinking, the Standard Model, a general theory of how particles fit together to create matter. It would also lead to bitter recriminations and infighting among the different scientists and a complete loss of confidence among the general public and taxpayer, he said.”

    Sounds a bit like AGW to me.

  • Michael Jennings wrote:
    I wrote an undergraduate honours dissertation on Lie Groups once.
    Are those anything like Fib Groups? ;-)

    [ducking]

  • frak

    John B,

    The power game has no place in libertarianism or those who truly love freedom.

    “Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.” Source: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/justice_and_power_must_be_brought_together-so/146157.html

    The power game sucks.

    Life sucks get a helmet.

  • John B

    Hey, frak, but if you can’t do something to alleviate the problem then why bother?
    Libertarianism is the power of freedom inherent in the uncontrolled/unmanipulated (as a way of life) individual.
    Get rid of the power games wherein people try to control, dominate, or otherwise impress other people and it is amazing what life and liberty is released.
    Until we can get away from shafting each other there is little/no hope of liberty.
    PS: Got my helmet many years ago

  • frak

    John B,

    Hey, frak, but if you can’t do something to alleviate the problem then why bother?

    Not sure what specific problem you are referring to, but the surest way of failing to amass massive wealth and power and conspiring with like-minded individuals to wield significant influence over political affairs is to not try. It is a never ending war.

    Libertarianism is the power of freedom inherent in the uncontrolled/unmanipulated (as a way of life) individual.

    Since the terms uncontrolled and unmanipulated are vague, this is not true. Libertarianism is the belief that it is immoral to violate the life, liberty, and property of other human beings. A libertarian can easily abide by this beautiful (I mean that sincerely) moral code and still:

    1. Form PACs, 527s, etc. to attack the bad politicians, defend the good politicians, and influence the public to agree with us.
    2. Own a significant portion of the media to frame stories according to OUR perspective on the world for a change (this is becoming more difficult due to blogs and the internet in general).
    3. Endow chairs, lectures, and even pay for the innovation of curriculum that support our viewpoints at universities, such as an annual lecture on austrian economics. Not to mention endow new schools with a conservative/libertarian philosophy (the world could use more George Masons).
    4. Pay for a pro-liberty legal team to conduct lawfare against McCain-Feingold and related laws until the laws are gone and you can pay for the entire political campaigns of pro-liberty politicians.
    5. If a state ever considers seceding from the union (see: Texas) you can be sure a billionaire backing the movement behind the scenes would be rather helpful.

    All this is theoretical for me, since I am currently poor.

    Get rid of the power games wherein people try to control, dominate, or otherwise impress other people and it is amazing what life and liberty is released.

    I am not trying to be rude but I don’t think you understand libertarianism. Libertarianism is about RIGHTS NOT FEELINGS.

    You can be snobby, elitist, racist, anti-semitic, rude, hateful, unfriendly, extremely powerful, and even dominant in bed and still be a libertarian (this is because you can be these things and not violate others’ natural rights to life, liberty, and property).

    In any case, power games = human nature; please wake up.

    Until we can get away from shafting each other there is little/no hope of liberty.

    Depending on what you are actually talking about: A) sex is natural and okay to do with others; B) violating contracts voluntarily entered into is immoral; C) a libertarian has no moral standing to require others to be nice or friendly or not the status-seeking jerks many people are in their heart of hearts.

    In summary, politics truly is war by other means – the means are not force (since that would be war) but, rather, various forms of power, including wealth, but there are many other forms of power as well.

    Samizdata.net is an example of several individuals who roughly agree on political philosophy: A) injecting pro-liberty ideas into the public square, B) changing a lot of minds slightly (on the margins or on particular issues), changing a few minds hugely, and C) disseminating the arguments and tools for pro-liberty people to argue with the sheeple. The means used are time, wealth, writing skills, and intellectual reasoning/firepower. Power + Purpose = Influence.

  • John B: I don’t mean to diss you by saying ‘what frak said’, since it may well be that he and you are talking past each other on some points, and also because I don’t agree with him on all things all the time (see a thread from a few days ago). I just think that he gets some very important points.

  • Libertarianism is about RIGHTS NOT FEELINGS.

    Sigh,

    The concept of ‘rights’ has become so debased I will not use it.
    Libertarianism is about freedoms, not rights.

    And I hate the use of the term sheeple.

  • John B

    frak:

    The power game is about coercion.
    Coercion/manipulation is the problem.
    If a person plays that game he is part of the problem, in my view.
    We are talking past each other to a degree but I guess we can live with it?
    Other things you write I agree with.
    But any form of manipulation (as totally different from simple presentation of facts) I regard as playing the enemy’s game and ultimately counter productive.

  • frak

    John B,

    The power game is about coercion.

    Coercion means force is used. It is not immoral to try to persuade people that currency is not unlike other goods in free markets (as quantity rises, value drops) using words. It is also not immoral to contribute money to worthy political causes.

    Coercion/manipulation is the problem.

    You are very fond of the manipulation term. Again, if force is used it is immoral; if force is not used, you may not like it and it is absolutely okay to despise people who are manipulative, but if they don’t use force it is not immoral according to libertarianism.

    If a person plays that game he is part of the problem, in my view.

    Playing for the right side in that game is how our side can score victories (there is no final victory…but there is also no final defeat).

    We are possibly talking past each other primarily due to a slightly different understanding of libertarianism. No hard feelings, comrade. :)

  • Paul Marks

    To get back to the physical scienists…..

    The whole thing is a wonderful example of conceit and self deception.

    Far from the public being horrified and dismayed if scientists fail to find the “Higgs Boson” about 99% of people have no idea what the “Higgs Boson” is supposed to be – or that scientists are looking for it.

    Sadly the taxpayers do not know their money is being spent on this – although I hope the scientist keeps shouting about the failure to find it and how this means ……..

    Then, perhaps, the taxpayers will notice their money is being looted for this purpose and put a stop to it.

    By the way none of the above is “anti science” – it is anti money be taken by the threat of force to fund theoretical reseach (which should be a matter for patrons and charitable trusts).

  • Pa Annoyed

    Patrons and charitable trusts?

    Industrial investors, surely? When someone patents the Higgs boson…

  • Laird

    I rather doubt that the Higgs Boson is patentable. However, if you were to develop a new strain of buffalo and call it a Higgs Bison, that might be a different story.

  • RRS

    Didn’t someone, whose thinking most of us respect, once write something called:

    CONJECTURES AND REFUTATIONS

    Are the results “dreaded” not just a form of refutation?

  • RRS

    Perhaps this should have been added:

    At least a form of refutation of the methodology

  • To Laird 30.12 , 20:14pm

    “Higgs Bison”…

    rotflol I love it! I want a pair!

  • I tip my hat to you, Mr Jennings – Lie Groups was right about where my maths abilities hit the buffers, hard (FWIW, I landed my MSc by the skin of my teeth, and it’s as well I specialised in Condensed Matter).

    Realistically, I do hope they land the Higgs; the Standard Model is a lovely thing, but beauty doesn’t imply correctness.

    btw, an article on the LHC some months ago, made me smile – from the diagrams, it seems the beam source for it is the old Super Proton Synchrotron, which gave us the W and Z (and resulting electroweak unification) back in the ’80s :-).

    Just an odd thought – while the LHC and Tevatron are both on the Higgs hunt, what’s happening around the Nuclear Strong force these days?

  • Pa Annoyed

    Dave,

    Dunno about the strong force. I think ALICE is supposed to be looking at something to do with that. But the LHC isn’t really after the Higgs, so much as supersymmetry and dark matter. I’ve heard some physicists say the real disaster would be if LHC does find the Higgs, but nothing else.

    The problem is that the theoreticians have gone about as far as they can without experimental data. They need new physics. If the Higgs is missing, that would be a positive, but if there’s no clue as to what to replace it with, they’re stuck. And they won’t be able to justify another one to go further without finding something new and interesting from this one.

    They’ve talked about the Higgs to the media because they’re pretty sure about that one. If they hung their hat on the more speculative stuff they’re really interested in, like dark matter or micro black holes or extra dimensions, it would be a bigger publicity problem not to find them. Success is important, when you’re playing with other people’s money.

    The real reason they’re doing it is to figure out which of the many candidates for supersymmetry to concentrate on. The Higgs boson is important, but not so critical.

  • John Pate

    I’m amused you failed to make the connection between your flight into science fiction in the previous post and the science fiction underlying the collider.

    Science has just begun to map the edges of human ignorance and the limitations inherent in the human condition and the scientific method – particularly the scientific method as mangled by the actual prosecution of science.

    The future is blinding mirage.

  • Meaning what exactly John? What do you mean by the limitations of the scientific method? Do you prefer the sort of faith-based views that describes much of the AGW debate? Do you have something better? Or are you referring to the conjectural nature of Popperian epistemology that underpins the scientific method? Please elaborate as you could mean all manner of very different things.

  • John Pate

    I mean a whole bunch of things, yes. From the fact that Dawkins can’t see how his passion undermines his own thesis. to the refusal of people in general (and yes, I include you specifically Mr de Havilland) to admit that as our understanding of the phenomenal universe advances we are – in actual fact – succeeding more or less exclusively in mapping the dimensions of our lack of understanding. To take it back to the particular, and something you can attempt to refute, the much-longed for technological singularity is clearly a mirage left over from C20th thinking.

    My take is that we should be paying a lot more attention to the Fermi Paradox.

    As for faith-based science – all science is faith-based and how can be anything else? A whole raft of unexamined axioms that may or may not be real must be accepted before you can do anything, let alone science.

  • I still really do not understand what you are trying to get across.

    And Dawkins’ “passion” undermines his views how? And which of his many views are you referring to? He has quite a lot of them as he has written a great deal about biology, he is an outspoken atheist, he is politically authoritarian… which views are you referring to?

  • John Pate

    OK, I’ll try some specifics: ITER fusion project – it will never deliver anything commercially useful. This has been clear for a long time but a hugely lucrative, for the people involved, economy of public-funded effort would disappear if the people involved actually faced up to the demonstrated results.

    Craig Venter and his pimping of biotechnologies that will never deliver. Everything he promises is “just around the corner” – and always will be. Even given there’s a big difference between theory and practice, we’re just now beginning to understand how far we have to go with the formulation of the theoretical underpinning in this area.

    And so on. There’s plenty more examples if you look with a proper critical paranoia.

    The case of Dawkins is an interesting one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully on board about Evolution. But what Dawkins can’t seem to handle is that it doesn’t actually explain anything very much about the important philosophical questions the human conditions demands answers to. What is for sure is that Dawkins rationalist, atheistic, authoritarianism hasn’t turned out well for most people involved in its past incarnations.

    My plea is for the abandonment of this masters of the Universe mentality and a great deal more scepticism of those people who say they can organise and improve due to their greater knowledge and insight. That’s whether they be scientists or politicians.

    I’m not suggesting a return to the Stone Age, I’m suggesting a return to reality. Tho, meantime, I’ll get back to watching, “Star Trek: Voyager.”

  • Still not sure what any of that has to do with what seemed to be a criticism of the scientific method. Indeed it seems you are praising a falsificationist outlook, which is fine by me.

    But as a transhumanist, I see limitations as something to be overcome, nor do I care to sit content with my small slice of the universe :-P

    But what Dawkins can’t seem to handle is that it doesn’t actually explain anything very much about the important philosophical questions the human conditions demands answers to.

    Really? I think evolution explains… evolution… quite well. As for important philosophical question… such as?

  • Paul Marks

    I think Dawkins is correct that evolution is most likely correct.

    However, there are no athiest consequences from this – as Noah Porter and James McCosh explained almost a century and half ago (indeed not long after “Origins…” came out).

    As for Dawkins himself (as a man – not as explaining of explainer fo science), he is a tosser. This is was shown (for example) by his reaction to being answered back by Bill O’Reilly on the Factor – Richard Dawkins produced a little internet film demanding that only “intelligent” people be allowed to present television shows and tha O’Reilly be banned.

    I know Dawkins is used to debating Church of England Bishop types (the sort who will say something like “yes I agree there is no such being as God – but, in a very real sense, there is a God if one interprets God as all of us, as the whole community……”), but there is no excuse for demanding that someone should be banned – just because they answer you back (rather than rolling over and dying) on their own television show.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Paul,

    depends what you mean by “atheist”. There are implications for any form of theism that makes definite literalist statements about how life was designed/created. There are definitely implications for those that use the “argument from design” as a major plank in their “evidence” for their God’s existence. There are none for those forms of theism that make no definite statements on the matter.

    It was the religious that picked evolution/creation as a battleground. You could equally well have picked the scientific question of where daylight comes from. (It can’t be the sun, because the sun was created several days later.) Or any of a hundred others. And one thing that does annoy Dawkins is when it is claimed that “you can’t disprove theism” or “science has nothing to say about such matters” about a vague, wishy-washy form of it that says nothing, but as soon as the point is conceded and the atheists seen off, they immediately revert to one of the specific forms making strong assertions about the world for which you can. And I can understand that.

    I haven’t seen the internet film you mention, so I can’t comment. I do know that Dawkins is frequently misquoted. But speaking generally, I don’t agree with Dawkin’s politics.