The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘God particle’

Higgs Boson Lecture at Dragon*Con 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 22, 2012

While at Dragon*Con 2012, I gave an incredibly well-attended lecture (standing room only!) on the recent “discovery”(?) of the Higgs boson and our modern theories of particle physics (known as the Standard Model).  The lecture was followed by a very fruitful Q&A session which was made all the more interesting because attending the lecture was an engineer who actually works on a detector at the Large Hadron Collider and a theoretical particle physicist!

I recorded the audio of the lecture in order to share it, and I have embedded that audio into the PowerPoint file I used for my lecture.  Enjoy! :)

The Higgs Boson – DC Lecture with Audio

Posted in philosophy, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2012

I wrote another article for the JREF Swift Blog recently, and this one focused on science, philosophy, and religion.  It gets to a pretty fundamental question regarding those three endeavors, and I wanted to share it with you here.  Enjoy!

Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?

Those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and supporters of science, and most especially those of us who are involved at some level in defending good science from the efforts of creationists to water down (or even eliminate) the teaching of evolution, will be familiar with this question. I think the answer is not simple and is much thornier, both philosophically and practically speaking, than many people (including many skeptics) would like to admit.

Let me first take a few minutes to outline some basics of the philosophy of science that are relevant to this discussion. This has to do with the nature of naturalism in science; more specifically, we need to make a very clear distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

Methodological naturalism is the practice of naturalism in science; in other words, as it is most commonly stated, there are naturalistic answers sought for scientific questions, and the question of potential supernatural answers (“miracles” if you will) is not even considered. It was the application of methodological naturalism in what was in the 19th-century still referred to as natural philosophy, which helped to define and distinguish modern science as it is currently practiced. In the view of many scientists, science as practiced doesn’t necessarily speak to the validity or non-validity of the supernatural precisely because it is constrained to seeking only natural causes for the phenomena we observe in the universe. In the view of pure methodological naturalism, science is agnostic on such matters, and this gives many believers in the supernatural an “out” for accepting science while retaining their beliefs.

By contrast, philosophical naturalism is usually defined as a philosophical position that there is no such thing as the so-called “supernatural” because the natural world is all that exists. This view assumes, a priori, that there is no separate realm of existence, which is distinguished from the natural world. Thus, in this view, anything, which is claimed to exist within the “supernatural” realm, either doesn’t exist at all or is being confused for some other kind of natural phenomenon which isn’t necessarily well understood by the claimant. It should come as no surprise that in the world of the philosophical naturalist there is no such thing as a miracle and there are no gods per se. There is no comfort for the supernaturalists in the worldview of philosophical naturalism.

Having laid that foundation, let us now get back to the specific case of the entire evolution-creationism discussion, where we can see this distinction between the methodological and philosophical view of naturalism on display. There are many pro-science groups, such as the National Center for Science Education, which take the view usually credited to the late Stephen J. Gould called non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) when discussing the thorny issues of science, religion, their intersection, and their conflicts. Basically NOMA takes a kind of modified position of methodological naturalism and is described by Gould as follows: “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” [1]

Even the National Academy of Sciences in the United States takes a viewpoint based upon NOMA, wherein, in regards to the evolution-creationism issue, they state: “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” [2]

Note that in the cases of taking the NOMA stance, there is nothing said one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of gods, miracles, or any kind of supernatural phenomena. However, there are many for whom the position of NOMA is rather unappealing, most notably because it seems to have the effect of stacking the deck in favor of what are considered unfounded beliefs and claims. For example, while the Catholic Church can tell its followers that the science for evolution is ironclad and therefore acceptable, that same religious institution routinely turns its back on science and completely ignores it regarding questions related to the authenticity of supposed religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin (which is, in case you didn’t know, a fake). This is merely one example where the believers and purveyors of the supernatural will try to have their cake and eat it too, the critics of NOMA would say, as they with one hand embrace science while with the other hand reject it. …

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Posted in philosophy, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Higgs Boson, The “God Particle”, and the March of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2011

You may have heard the recent news that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider may be narrowing their search for the Higgs Boson.  Here’s an update from The Guardian…

particle collision cern

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at Cern. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We may have glimpsed the Higgs boson, say Cern scientists

Scientists believe they may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature.

Physicists Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli were applauded by hundreds of scientists yesterday as they revealed evidence for the particle amid the debris of hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. …

Let me just put a few things into perspective here on this potential (and I stress potential) discovery.  First, the data are rather preliminary, and in order to say for sure that there is solid evidence for the Higgs Boson, there need to be more observations to help shore up the statistical analysis.  In particle physics, it is not uncommon to see the occasional “discovery” that eventually ends up being merely a statistical anomaly, so more data is better to weed out the anomalies.  This section of The Guardian article helps to clarify this point:

… Particle physicists use a “sigma” scale to grade the significance of results, from one to five. One and two sigma results are unreliable because they come and go with statistical fluctuations in the data. A three sigma result counts as an “observation”, while a five sigma result is enough to claim an official discovery. There is less than a one in a million chance of a five sigma result being a statistical fluke.

Gianotti and Tonelli led two separate teams – one using Cern’s Atlas detector, the other using the laboratory’s Compact Muon Solenoid. At their seminar yesterday one team reported a 2.3 sigma bump in their data that could be a Higgs boson weighing 126GeV, while the other reported a 1.9 sigma Higgs signal at a mass of around 124GeV. There is a 1% chance that the Atlas result could be due to a random fluctuation in the data. …

So, by these data, while the 2.3 and 1.9 sigma signals are interesting, they don’t really rise to the level of a solid observation (which, recall, is set at a standard of 3.0 sigma), much less an official discovery.

Also, by “narrowed the search” for the Higgs Boson, what the CERN physicists mean is that they may have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs Boson might exist.  So, long story short, while these results are of interest, don’t go popping those champagne corks just yet :)

The “God Particle”?

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of annoyed at all of this labeling of the hypothetical Higgs Boson as the “God Particle”.  I see it as the kind of mushing of religion into science that leads to all manner of philosophically-challenged kind of muddy thinking.  First off, depending upon how one defines God (assuming the standard monotheistic version of the Abrahamic god), which is usually defined as a supernatural being, you run into trouble by trying to find natural evidence for a thing which is supposed to be beyond nature.

Second, even if we did discover the Higgs Boson, what would that supposedly tell us about this God?  Presumably various armchair theologians argue that such a discovery would be evidence for their view of God (which also begs the question of whether or not it is evidence for one God versus another God).  The logic here simply escapes me, and it smacks of the usual “everything is evidence for God” kind of argumentation that passes the lips of too many religious people.  And this also brings up a potentially sticky question for the advocates of the “God Particle” label…

What if the Higgs Boson isn’t discovered, despite years of detailed searching?  Will these same armchair theologians suddenly give up their belief in their God because the supposed “Particle” which is his/her/its/their fingerprint upon the cosmos was never there to begin with?  Somehow I don’t think so, because these believers will merely rationalize away the lack of evidence for the “God Particle”.  It is in this sense that I find some people who try to stick the round peg of religion into the square hole of science to be particularly annoying: they want to use science as a method of “proving” their religious beliefs when they think it will work for them, yet they completely dismiss science when it works against them.  It’s simply “heads I win, tails you lose” argumentation, and it is both intellectually lazy and disingenuous.

What if we don’t find the Higgs Boson?  Science will march on…

This is the thing I really like about science: it never ends.  The process of scientific investigation never ceases to ask questions, formulate ideas, and test out those ideas.  I think it is entirely possible that in the search for the Higgs Boson, it will never be found; and what then?  What if we never find it?  Well, that’s when I think things will get really interesting, because that means that much of what we think we know about the Standard Model of physics could very well be wrong.  And that would mean that we need to start looking at things differently; this is, to me, the antithesis of dogmatic thinking, and it shows how science is, collectively, the best mechanism we have for stimulating open and free inquiry of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong – I would be quite excited if the Higgs Boson were discovered.  But I think I would be much more excited if it weren’t found.  That would certainly open up a lot more questions, wouldn’t it?

To science!  May it march ever onward…

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Large Hadron Collider Creates “Son of God” Particle

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 31, 2010

In honor of the recent news of the Large Hadron Collider’s successful run-up to 7.0 TeV collisions and the upcoming Easter weekend, I figure that I’d pass along a humorous little bit that I just stumbled upon.  Enjoy!

Hint: the joke is that laymen often state that the LHC is searching for the Higg’s Boson, a.k.a. the “God Particle” ;)

Near miss as Large Hadron Collider discovers ‘Son of God’ particle

Happy scientists exchanged water for wine

‘It’s not quite the God particle we’ve been looking for, ’said Professor Mann, head of the Atlas Project at CERN, ‘but it’s a miracle nonetheless.’

The particle arose from a collision between a J and an M particle in a way which no one thought possible, and the bright light created sucked in three K particles from the East.  Although it only existed for a fraction of a second, scientists are adamant that the Son of God particle will re-appear by Sunday.

‘Make no mistake there’ll be lots written about this and it will become the standard textbook for how we do things in future,’ said Professor Mann.  ‘I’ve no doubt it will lead to peace, harmony and wisdom among all men with sandals, beards and tank-tops.’

Excitement at the news was heightened when it was revealed that, on the same day, a technician in the CERN canteen opened a marmite sandwich to discover a perfect image of esteemed physicist Professor Peter Higgs.

Posted in humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Large Hadron Collider – Where Does Science End & Pseudoscience Begin?

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 20, 2009

Where does legitimate science end and questionable pseudoscience begin?  It’s a good question, and one brought up in my mind due to a story about the theory behind the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which has gotten a lot of attention in recent days.  Two theoretical physicists have come up with a theory by which they propose to explain why the LHC might never detect particles like the Higgs Boson… sabotage from the future.

Yes, you read that right – sabotage from the future. I’ll let the article explain it a bit more…

The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate

Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I’m not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I’m talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, put this idea forward in a series of papers with titles like “Test of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal” and “Search for Future Influence From LHC,” posted on the physics Web site arXiv.org in the last year and a half.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Conversation with an Anti-LHC Lunatic

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 5, 2009

As a quick follow up to a recent post – LHC Lunacy & Doomsday Scenarios – I wanted to share with you an online discussion I had with a physics woo on this topic.  The conversation with James Blodgett, who seems to have a history of opposing the Large Hadron Collider on pseudoscientific grounds, is recorded on the Science & Technology subforum of the JREF Forum.

Allow me to, as a lesson in the kind of thinking employed by many pseudoscientists, point out some of the more egregious statements & arguments by Mr. Blodgett and why they are so off-base…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Real Scientists vs. Wanna-Be’s

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 16, 2009

I just got finished attending a couple of days of the joint AAPT & AAAS winter meeting in Chicago, and I must say it was an interesting couple of days! It’s always nice to attend these conferences so that one can connect with the wider scientific & teaching community out there.

While I was at the conference, I attended a fascinating series of talks on some of the latest research coming out of FermiLab, the perfect material for a total physics geek like me. The most interesting stuff at that symposium was the work being done at FermiLab on attempts to detect the Higgs boson and even dark matter!

fermilab

Briefly, the Higgs boson (also called the Higgs field) is a fundamental particle of nature which is believed by particle physics theorists to exist “beneath” all other particles. All the other fundamental particles of nature – from leptons to quarks to gluons and photons (plus many more) – interact with the Higgs field in a way which determines the mass of the particle. Those particles which interact more strongly with the Higgs have a higher mass. And the Higgs boson forms the last, big missing link in what is called the Standard Model of particle physics (kind of like a periodic table for the fundamental particles of nature). In order to complete the Standard Model, experimentalists need to find evidence of the Higgs in particle accelerators.

The speaker on the Higgs research openly stated at one point in his talk that if scientists at FermiLab or the Large Hadron Collider couldn’t ever find evidence of the Higgs, then that would be more exciting than if they did find such evidence. This is because if no evidence of the Higgs could ever be found, then it would call into question the entire structure of the Standard Model. This would then, in turn, lead to a new revolution in physics, just as Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis in the early 20th century led to the (then) new field of quantum mechanics.

The next really interesting moment came when I was listening to the scientist trying to detect dark matter at FermiLab. Briefly, of all the matter in the universe, only about 3% of it is what we call standard luminous (or baryonic) matter. Most of the rest, about 85-90%, is so-called dark matter (not to be confused with dark energy) – which is matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation at all. The only manner in which we can detect dark matter is through its gravitational influence upon normal matter. Incidentally, three big lines of evidence converge to convince us that dark matter is a reality – gravitational lensing effects, peculiar behavior of galactic rotation curves, and the motion of galaxies in galactic clusters.

However, for the physicist researching dark matter, this isn’t enough. In order for dark matter to really be established as the real thing, he and others in the scientific community want to find it in the lab. So he’s undertaking a series of bubble chamber experiments at FermiLab in an attempt to directly detect dark matter particles. And all physicists acknowledge that dark matter, as yet, has no place in the Standard Model – so this means the Standard Model only describes about 3% of all the matter in the known universe!

I’m not going to go into any more of the details of these talks, but I just wanted to mention something very important that I noted in them. In both cases, the scientists involved in this cutting-edge research were very clear to point out how little we really knew about these subjects. They also made a big point to note that they were perfectly happy to have their experiments fail to detect the Higgs and dark matter, because that would mean we have to completely rework many of our theories of physics.

Far from being rigid dogmatists, as many inaccurately portray the scientific community, these people displayed what real science is all about – putting your hypothesis on the line and letting the observations & experiments be the final arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong. Real science continually questions its assumptions.

It has been my experience that the real dogmatists are the pseudoscientific cranks, who are basically wanna-be scientists. They latch onto an idea they think is cool, but in spite of all evidence to the contrary they’ll hold onto these discredited ideas. And, in many cases, after they are unable to offer proof of their ideas, the cranks will attack the scientific community for being “dogmatic” and – sometimes – even accuse it of a conspiracy to hide the “truth”. Worse yet, some pseudoscientists propose ideas which aren’t scientific at all – because they can never be falsified – yet they want these notions to have the elevated status of science anyway. They think that by putting on a lab coat and calling their ideas science, that somehow it magically becomes science!

No amount of woo will ever interest me as much as real science. Even if these attempts to detect the Higgs boson and dark matter fail utterly, we’ll have learned so much in going through the process of scientific exploration that it will have all been worth it. And that’s what makes real science so exciting – we don’t know what nature has in store for us!

In closing this post, I’ll reference the words of a great skeptic & advocate for science, Dr. Phil Plait – astronomer & the president of the JREF – when he said: “The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it!”

Posted in scientific method, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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