… walk into a radio show and cause me to facepalm repeatedly.
Listeners of The BBC Radio Wales Phone-In were treated to some utter tripe yesterday when for some reason Stephen Green (known mainly for being religious and, in my view, a terrible human) and Timothy Stanley (known for prattling on about America) were invited to talk about the amazing discovery of something scientists suspect might be the long sought-after Higgs boson. I won’t go to the effort of trying to explain what the Higgs boson is and does as this video explains it much better than I ever could.
You can listen to the whole show here or the Stephen Green part below. There is a balance of crazy callers who want to understand and crazy callers who don’t. In fairness, the host, Jason Mohammad, does seem to have made some effort and had Peter Millington, a particle physicist (who I assume is the same Millington of the HEP group at Manchester), on to answer some questions – but apparently not to explain what the Higgs boson is.
[Edit: Peter Millington did a great job in the face of stupidity. I've no idea why Jason didn't want Peter to explain the Higgs boson and insisted on asking callers instead.]
Most of the points made by Stephen and Timothy, as well as the questions asked by Jason, are nonsense but I worry that some people will be swayed by their poorly formed arguments and so I will rebut each of the main points here:
1) The Higgs boson doesn’t disprove God.
The Higgs boson has bugger all to do with God. The term “God Particle” was coined by a publisher. Leon Lederman wanted to call it the “Goddamn Particle”. However, it’s important to know that God doesn’t actually exist and the Higgs boson has nothing to do with God or any other tall tale.
2) How matter came in to being is a job for theology.
As far as I’m aware theology has done nothing for the advancement of mankind in many hundreds of years (or ever?) and simply making up stories about the origins of Life, The Universe and Everything is a job best left to greater authors than those responsible for the tosh some so lovingly revere.
3) The costs are unjustified.
This is such an old and tired argument. The cost of the Large Hadron Collider was approximately between £2.6bn and £8bn depending on who you ask. The UK’s contribution is either £26m or £95m per year, again depending on who you ask and in which year.
Assuming even the highest costs are true, this is a fraction of the price spent on banks and wars. Check out this graphic from 2009 on government spending and try to find the circle that represents the total amount invested in research. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve failed to find it I’ll just point out that it was £3.295bn. And that amount isn’t given over completely to science.
Nevermind that two companies involved in building the collider have reported that for every euro they spent, they got 3 and a half euros back.
4) The contribution to society by the moon missions was neglible.
This is only slightly off-topic, though it was mentioned by Tim, but stay with me as this leads in to point 5 – it’s just down there if you want to skip ahead.
What did the moon missions, and the missions later inspired by the Apollo programme, give us? Artificial heart pumps, advanced breast cancer screening, major advances in satellite technology (which is an essential part of our daily lives), robotic surgery equipment, fly-by-wire, thermal protection suits, advances in prosthetic limb technology, the list goes on. And this was a programme that Tim reports did not receive widespread support.
What has Timothy Stanley given us? Well he has a blog and some books that I’m sure someone in the distant future will find some use for.
5) It’s of no great benefit to mankind.
How on Earth can Tim possibly know this? Is he psychic? Does he know the future? No, he does not. For all his history studies Timothy doesn’t seem to know much about scientific discoveries that push right up against the edge of our knowledge, and their later uses.
Once upon a time Sir Paul Nurse was looking at yeast genes for what no one assumed would have much of an impact on the world – in fact Sir Paul had little in the way of competition. What he discovered was the gene that controls cell division in yeast. Somewhat cool right?
Well, he was later employed by Walter Bodmer of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Some of his colleagues shunned him but his previous work with yeast helped him make breakthroughs in the way we understand how cancer spreads and new ways in which we can combat it in its many different guises.
The LHC and other projects at CERN also have what are called spin-offs. These have given us better tools for detecting and treating cancer, the freaking world wide web was invented there as a way for scientists to share data, there have been improvements to simulations in software, and numerous progressions in superconductivity.
Oh and quantum mechanics, which was often said to have no practical purposes, lead to the invention of the transistor we use in computers. That piece of kit is kind of important.
I don’t know how people like Timothy Stanley and Stephen Green can be so small and simple-minded (though they’re both religious and conservative) about experiments like those going on at the LHC and the rest of CERN but it saddens me that evolution proves we share an ancestor.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a very intelligent man I know:
Hurrah for the Boson though. Really. It’s completely brilliant that we as a species can lift our heads, hold up the mantle of civilization and consider donning it, free from the gushing effluent of Cowell, Clarkson and Cameron twattery with which we are (and allow ourselves to be) buffeted much of the time.