Thoughts on the Discovery of the Higgs Boson and the Nature of “Major Scientific Discoveries”

Commentators all over the world greeted as a major scientific discovery the July 4  news that researchers at CERN had proof of the existence of the long-postulated Higgs Boson, complete with a plausible range of mass.  I really like science, but I found myself wondering why my heart didn’t leap.

Or, to be more precise (if poetic), why I did not have the reaction to the Higgs boson announcement that John Keats recorded to his first reading of Chapman’s translation of Homer:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Setting aside the fact that it was Balboa, not Cortez, whose expedition included the first Europeans to sight the Pacific in Panama, that’s how I expect great scientific discoveries to make me feel.  This one didn’t.   This blog post is the result, a meditation on excitement at scientific discovery.

I don’t think my muted reaction was a response to the somewhat indirect and tentative nature of the discovery.  The CERN scientists actually announced that, from looking at the results from the Large Hadron Collider, they had seen an overabundance of certain particles among the debris of the very high-energy collisions the machine had caused.  The researchers concluded that the odds were very good that those particles were produced by the decay of a new particle of a likely size of 125 to 127 billion electron volts, about the right size for the long-postulated Higgs boson.  This was not video of an actual murder, but I’ll accept it as a smoking gun – good circumstantial evidence – and pretty good proof that they have most likely found the Higgs (or a “Higgs-like” particle).

It also wasn’t solely from the likely non-existent practical consequences of the discovery.  Although I suppose it is conceivable that the discovery of the Higgs boson (or the information about its characteristics, such as its mass, that comes from that discovery), in itself, could have some practical effects, they seem unlikely.  But I would and do thrill to various other scientific discoveries of no apparent practical use, from the natures of dark matter and dark energy to the existence of methane lakes on Titan to deciphered gene sequence of Neanderthals.

I think what limited my excitement was that the Higgs announcement was really just the confirmation of a long-standing and widely accepted theoretical prediction.  The Standard Model of particle physics predicted the Higgs boson and is broadly accepted because it predicts many things well.  It was not surprising that the Higgs was eventually found – whereas it would have been surprising if CERN’s Large Hadron Collider had not found a good candidate for the Higgs boson.  That is not intended to denigrate the hard and essential work that the CERN team did, but the “real” discovery was the physic’s standard model.  Confirming what (almost?) all physicists expected feels more like checking off a box than making a universe-shaking discovery.

But couldn’t the same be said for other, “clearly” exciting scientific discoveries?  Though old, I am too young to remember Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA, but I like to think the current me would have been blow away by it.  But everyone knew DNA had a structure and that someone, sometime (and probably sometime soon) was going to find it.  The surprise in Crick and Watson, though, was in the unexpectedly elegant and meaningful nature of the structure. As they famously wrote, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

I thrilled to the first discoveries of planets around other stars.  It was certainly plausible to think such planets existed, but, unlike with the Higgs boson, a well-accepted theory of the universe would not have to be rewritten if they did not exist.  Plus, the ways the planets varied wildly from our Sol-based expectations was exciting.

Turning to likely contemporary discoveries in the areas where I work, what about the discovery of “a gene for disease X” (meaning, of course, a variation or variations in a particular gene that causes the disease or confers a much higher risk of the disease)?  If it is a disease for which we have very good reason to think there is such a genetic association, through, say, family studies, it seems to me it is more like the Higgs boson.  Definitively not finding it (which is mainly what we have done with genes linked strongly to common diseases) would be more exciting than finding it, unless the mechanism of the genetic action were surprising or novel (the way expanded triplet repeats as a cause of disease were unexpected before discovered in the early 1990s).

Of course, such a discovery might provide a different kind of excitement, in terms of its possible uses, but not the thrill of discovery.  Thus, Mary Claire King’s discovery that a genetic variation strongly associated with breast cancer existed and further that it was located on chromosome 17 was exciting; the eventual location and sequencing of that gene, though exciting for its uses, should have been just confirmatory.  If we have very strong reason to believe (proof?) that a genetic sequence exists that “causes” a disease, actually knowing the sequence is useful but not inherently thrilling (except for its potential practical significance.)

Or what about the discovery of a very strong and reliable link between a certain pattern of fMRI activations and a subjective mental state, like pain, or deceptiveness, or love?  We know (or believe we know) that subjective mental states are created by different physical brain states.  There, the excitement would come from both the possible uses of a specific mind reading technology and the fact, not necessarily deducible from theory, that fMRI (or any other specific tool) could detect the physical states (or their sequelae) well enough to determine accurately the mental state.   (I suppose this may be akin to learning that the Large Hadron Collider is big enough to “see” the Higgs boson, but not quite – the collider issue is just (?) one of size, not of type.)

Dolly was exciting because no one (except those very few, not including me, who were paying close attention) thought that mammals could be cloned from adult cells, plus her apparent possible practical implications.  Human embryonic stem cells were exciting for their uses, but the ability to isolate and preserve them could not have been that unexpected, given 15 years of success with mouse embryonic stem cells.  The discovery that “regular” cells, like skin cells, could become “de-differentiated” and akin to embryonic cells through the production of induced pluripotent stem cells, though, was exciting because unexpected and potentially important.

So, for me, I think excitement at scientific discoveries comes in three main forms:  excitement at the discovery of an unexpected “fact,” at the discovery of an unexpected mechanism behind that “fact”, or (possibly at a lower level) the prospect of the practical consequences from a discovery.  The Higgs discovery misses, for me at least, on all three counts.

This does lead to one somewhat sad consequence.  By my analysis, the standard model was the exciting discovery – but it was not exciting until it was believed to be true, which, as I understand it, happened bit by bit over time, both as more evidence was found that it was consistent with the actual world and as refinements were made to the model.  There was no “Eureka” moment for the world, no gasp of excitement at the sudden realization that something new and deep had been discovered.   A retrospective “gasp” in honor of the creators of the Standard Model seems clearly in order, but, somehow, it just doesn’t feel the same.

One of the advantages (?) of running a blog is the ability to post the rambling results of one’s own navel-gazing.  I am curious, though, whether others share my muted reaction to the Higgs announcement and agree, or disagree, with my discussion of the thrill of scientific discovery.

And now I think I may try to find Chapman’s translation of Homer.

Hank Greely

Director, Center for Law and the Biosciences