Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Irish Times and the God particle

Today, The Irish Times has an article of mine on its weekly science page. In the piece, I describe the tentative results from CERN and Fermilab on the famous Higgs boson, amidst some explanatory background on particle physics. I put some thought into the piece, but I suspect what will be remembered is the headline ‘Nearer, my God particle, to thee’. This was not the title I submitted, to put it mildly.

I have no particular problem with the nickname ‘God particle’ for the Higgs boson (unlike many of my colleagues). I admit the moniker is both catchy and reasonably apt as the Higgs field is thought to endow all other particles with mass. It is also appropriate because the Higgs is an important keystone of our model of particle physics, yet it has proved remarkably elusive – so something of a Holy Grail.

However, I’m not comfortable with the Irish Times headline. The hymn ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’ has a lot of resonance for people who have lost loved ones (think Titanic). A pun based on such a hymn isn’t very clever in my view; it manages to trivialise both science and religion, all in my name.

This keeps happening to me. I put time and thought into expressing science clearly, and what eventually appears does so under a headline I dislike. Journalist friends tell me not to be precious but I think language is important.

This morning, I suspect my name is mud in the coffee room of every physics department in Ireland. As for the humanities, we can expect some outraged letters to the editor from professors of theology or philosophy – to the delight of The Irish Times. Sigh.

The article is here.

Caution: silly puns trivialise both science and religion and may cause offence

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Neutrino lecture at University College Cork

I gave another talk on the OPERA ‘faster-than-light’ neutrino experiment on Wednesday evening at University College Cork (UCC). I was booked months ago to give the talk as part of the UCC Public Lecture Series and it’s always a pleasure to visit the beautiful campus at UCC.

University College Cork – the nicest campus in Ireland?

Of course, I was concerned the topic might be a bit of damp squib. As everyone in physics knows, a technical fault associated with the OPERA experiment was recently uncovered. Specifically, a connector cable for GPS clock synchronisation was found to be faulty. Between this and other problems, the ‘faster-than-light’ result has been withdrawn (see here for details).

The neutrino detector at Gran Sasso

In fact, the lecture was great fun. We got a good turnout and I made a point of using exactly the same slides I used when the OPERA result was first announced (see here for details). I thought the parts of the talk where I explained the grounds for scepticism from the viewpoint of both special and general relativity (theory and experiment) looked well in retrospect, though I tried hard not to say We told you so. In conclusion, I introduced a few new slides where I discussed what lessons could be learnt from the incident e.g.

1. If your result is in conflict with well-known theory, check, check and check again before you publish (anywhere).

2. If your result is in conflict with decades of experiments, check even more carefully.

3. Never underestimate the media appetite for  ‘Einstein wrong’  stories. Everyone has heard of Einstein and everyone has heard of the speed of light –  this story was always going to be huge.

4. ‘Einstein not wrong after all’ is not such a great media story. In consequence, many members of the public will never get to hear of the correction. Bear this in mind before you go public with a result that may later have to be corrected.

Check your cables – all of them!

The slides I used for the UCC talk are here and I will upload the video in a day or two.

Update

This just in: a group working on an extremely similar neutrino experiment at Gran Sasso have announced the observation of neutrinos obeying the speed limit, as normal. This pretty much refutes the OPERA result completely. See here for details.

Update II

April 3: The head of the OPERA collaboration has resigned over the weekend, see here for details

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The Science Delusion

A few weeks ago, The Irish Times published my review of The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, the former Cambridge don and enfant terrible of science. Sheldrake was a prominent name in evolutionary biology in the 1970s but he has since become a controversial figure because of his espousal of disputed phenomena such as telepathy, precognition and extra-sensory perception.

Overall, I found the book fascinating but flawed. I didn’t feel the author offered any real evidence for his central thesis: that a strict philosophy of materialism (the belief that all reality is physical in nature) has hindered progress in science and caused working scientific hypotheses to harden into rigid dogma. Most of the evidence offered for this contention consisted of a critique of the methods of science reminiscent of practitioners of the discipline known as  science studies; almost no attempt was made to engage critically with these views or to explain why the scientific method has been so successful.

I also found that some of the basic science was flawed, especially in the sections on modern physics. Most of the material cited as evidence for ‘scientific dogma’  was not drawn from the scientific literature, but from review articles in popular science magazines. Such publications offer only a superficial version of scientific theories and I would argue that many of the ‘dogmatic principles’ identified by Sheldrake are in fact open questions in scientific research.

Meanwhile, I found the author’s own pet theory of morphic resonance a bit far-fetched. In essence, this theory posits that the fundamental constituents of nature are not matter and energy, but self-organising systems that resonate with their environments. In this worldview, atoms, molecules and cells are not unconscious material, but have patterns of behaviour and habits. Sheldrake uses this theory to examine whether the universe is alive, whether the laws of physics are habits that change and evolve, whether all biological inheritance is material, and whether the mind is really confined to the brain. He also suggests that the theory can offer an explanation for phenomena such as telepathy and precognition.

Overall, these discussions were fascinating, especially the descriptions of experiments attempted to test the theory. However, the experiments are also highly controversial; indeed, a little research shows that in many cases, the results are hotly disputed even amongst the experimenters themselves!

You can read my full review of The Science Delusion on The Irish Times website here. I was surprised to see that the book received rave reviews in both The Guardian and The Independent. However, neither review was written by a scientist. Indeed, there seems to be something of a culture divide here; Sheldrake’s views are enthusiastically embraced by people who know nothing of science, while scientists themselves are less impressed. Is that because we are fatally blinkered or could it be that we know what we are talking about?

Update

Reading the comments, I should probably make it clear that I think the answer to the above question is the latter. It seems to me that Sheldrake makes the classic error of rejecting well-established science that is backed by very strong evidence, whilst embracing highy questionable theories that are backed by very flimsy evidence…funny how these often go together

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