On 31 August 2010 the “Life and Physics” blog moved here, to the Guardian Science pages from a newish blog on wordpress. Exactly eight years later¹, at the end of this month, it will move back, as the Guardian closes its Science Blog Network. Following the lead of my fellow blogger Dean Burnett, here is a closing review, complete with a Douglas Adams inspired headline².
My main purpose in writing these articles was to share the wonder of the science I do (particle physics, the study of the fundamental constituents and forces of the universe) and simultaneously demystify it a bit. One of the wonderful things about science is the fact that it is done by flawed, often confused, people yet still achieves so much. My favourite quote remains the one from Max Gluckman:
A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation
Fools and geniuses. Often at the same time.
All about the Higgs
I don’t think I am being biased when I say that the most exciting thing in particle physics over this period was the discovery of the Higgs boson at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC), something in which I was privileged to be personally involved.
I started writing the blog because of the interest in the LHC, specifically a paper I had co-written on searching for the Higgs when it decays to a pair of bottom quarks. Perhaps fittingly, my last regular article here featured the eventual observation of this process. I hope my long-term readers enjoyed watching the birth of a new particle, which could have happened by accident (but didn’t) and was of course announced in the font best suited for complex topics and primary school newsletters. The blog was a huge help in writing Smashing Physics, where you can relive the discovery should you be so inclined. I hope you are.
Science, evidence, and measles
The ways we have of trying not to fool ourselves in particle physics apply far beyond the subject itself. Indeed life would probably be better for everyone if they were more often applied beyond science too. I tried to cover some of that, including a proposed scientific definition of a closed mind inspired by the Reverend Bayes.
One of the most popular articles was nothing to do with particle physics but everything to do with me trying not to be fooled, or fool myself, on the vital matter of my son’s health – MMR and me.
There’s more to particle physics than the Higgs, and more to physics than particles. This remains my favourite plot (ok it contains the Higgs, but there’s more). The hunt for Dark Matter has been a theme and remains an ongoing quest. I went “off blog” for the discovery of gravitational waves, and it was also covered by Janna Levin in one of the Perimeter Lectures I featured here regularly.
Another popular non-particle post was on the ultra-violent origins of gold, more nuclear and astrophysics than particle physics. Also more nuclear than particle is the physics of proton therapy. And then there is the physics of harps, of climbing and… well, basically physics is everywhere.
Back to the particles though, this is a good place to thank the many guest writers. There have been several great one-offs, and theorists Herbi Dreiner and Ben Allanach have made a number of contributions, with perspectives on the role of theory and of public engagement. Most of all though thanks to Lily Asquith, especially for the My Favourite Particle series she started. There will also be a wrap-up of her Particle Physicist in Whitehall account before the end of August.
Science and politics
The expectations we place on our politicians regarding their scientific knowledge are far too low, as demonstrated by the enthusiastic reaction to Justin Trudeau’s modest competence in quantum computing. But a bit more widespread political competence wouldn’t go amiss either.
Science, especially particle physics, is an international endeavour. With some reservations, the EU has been a very good thing for science, and the UK used to be very influential (for example in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures), a fact which enhanced our ability to be major player beyond Europe. Whatever else they have done, the Brexit referendum result and the ensuing “lack of clarity” have seriously damaged our standing, and threaten to leave us in a much worse position than (for example) Norway, Switzerland or Israel³.
This is a distracting background against which to do science or write about it, and it has increasingly come into the foreground. Our future as a leading scientific nation has been undermined by ignorance, prejudice and propaganda, with what looks like a large slice of cheating and hostile foreign interference. We particle physicists probably have it better than many other scientists, though the impact will go far beyond science unless something is done to mitigate it. The trend towards nationalism and nativism goes beyond the UK, sadly, and powerful though the scientific method is, history does not indicate physicists have any special ability to resist.
A different kind of politics and a different kind of distraction: Until I became head of a department, I had not fully appreciated how big the impact of sexual misconduct and harassment is on academia. This is of course because I am part of a privileged majority in my field, and as the Petrie multiplier elegantly demonstrates, the majority can easily remain oblivious to effects which are inescapable for the minority.
Less worrying than the unknown political territory is the fact that particle physics, at the LHC and elsewhere, is now off the theoretical map. This map – the so-called Standard Model of particle physics – predicted the Higgs, but leaves many important questions unanswered. For instance, it does not explain dark matter or why the universe contains more matter than antimatter, and it does not accommodate gravity.
In search of some clues to these and other problems, the LHC continues providing more data at the highest energies, allowing us to study our newly discovered boson with increasing precision, but also to chase down possible anomalies, pushing the boundaries of knowledge beyond the Standard Model. The search for dark matter also continues in underground detectors and in astrophysics. Other experiments, for example in neutrino physics or precision quantum measurements of the muon will offer exciting insights as to what might be going on. Meanwhile, new technologies are being developed towards higher (and cheaper) energies, theorists let their imaginations wander further, and we all discuss what the best way forward might be after the LHC.
A favourite metaphor of mine (to the extent that I made a book out of it) is the “map” we have of what is going on at the subatomic level. I like it because it gives a sense of exploration, but also makes it clear that the relationships between the things we discover are important. Everything has to fit together. The process of accommodating a new piece of knowledge into an existing framework, and seeing how the framework has to change as a consequence, is exciting and revelatory, and lends itself to another metaphor (and a final Douglas Adams reference), science as a holistic detective agency.
There will be new results, clues and discoveries over the next months and years, and I am likely to continue writing about them somewhere. If and when I do, there will always be links posted here. I would be delighted if you continued reading. But from eight years at Guardian Science blogs – goodbye and thank you for your attention. It has been a privilege.
With best wishes,
¹Although somewhat confusingly you can find a few entries that predates that here if you try, because I migrated a few of the earlier ones over
² Sean Carroll beat me to “The Particle at the End of the Universe”
³ Non-EU CERN member states