Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Letter to Prospect: a response

My column for the June issue of Prospect (available in the archives here) can be seen as somewhat sceptical about the value of the Large Hadron Collider, so it is right that Prospect should publish a letter defending it. But the one that appears in the September issue is a little odd:

“Philip Ball (June) says that "the only use of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] that anyone ever hears about is the search for the Higgs boson." But this is not so. Physicists may look crazy, but they are not crazy enough to build such a complicated and technically demanding installation just to hunt down one particle. The LHC will be the world's most powerful instrument in particle physics for the next ten to 20 years, and it has been built to help us understand more about the 96 per cent of our universe that remains a mystery. The first thing physicists will be looking for is the Higgs boson, but this is just the beginning of a long journey into the unknown. As with earlier accelerators, there will be surprises.”

I’m glad that the author, Reinhard Budde, quoted my remark, because it reveals his non-sequitur. I did not say, as he implies, “all the LHC will do is look for the Higgs boson.” As a writer, I will make factual mistakes and no doubt also express opinions that are not wholly fair or justified. But I do try to choose my words carefully. Let me repeat them more fully:

“Particle physicists point out that because it will smash subatomic particles into one another with greater energy than ever before, it will open a window on a whole new swathe of reality. But the only use of the LHC that anyone ever hears about is the search for the Higgs boson… The LHC may turn up some surprises—evidence of extra dimensions, say, or of particles that lie outside the standard model.”

(It’s interesting that even Dr Budde doesn’t enlighten us about what else. exactly, the LHC might do, but I was happy to oblige.)

It’s a small point, but it does frustrate me; as I found out as a Nature editor, scientists seem peculiarly bad at comprehension of the written word (they have many other virtues to compensate).

For the record, I support the construction of the LHC, but with some reservations, as I stated in my piece. And by the way, I am a physicist, and I do not feel I look particularly crazy. Nor do I feel this is true of physicists as a whole, although many do have a tendency to look as though they belong in The Big Lebowski (this is a good thing). And the LHC was not built by “physicists” – it was built at the request of a rather small subsection of the global physics community. Not all physicists, or even most, are particle physicists.


JimmyGiro said...

Well young man, we both started out as chemists, and probably for the same reason. But this is your blog, so tell us what made you turn to physics, what was your epiphany?

Oliver said...

I'm willing to accept that all accelerators produce surprises, but not necessarily very big ones. What were the first order surprises at LEP. Or the ISR? Or for that matter the Tevatron?

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