During the early weeks of January 2012 I boarded a plane for Europe. My destination: Geneva, Switzerland to spend several days in, around and underneath CERN.
CERN (originally the acronym for Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) is the world's largest particle physics laboratory. CERN's shape is its most famous feature. It is an underground, circular tunnel measuring 27 kilometers in circumference. Headquarters of CERN are located against the Franco-Swiss border but most of its underground architecture is located under the French countryside. Located on the ring are four discrete particle detectors — ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb. If you think of the CERN ring as a watch face with its headquarters located just outside Geneva at 6 o-clock, the four detectors are located at 6 (ATLAS), 12 (CMS), 8 (ALICE) and 4 (LHCb). Each of these detectors serves a different, nuanced function for the experiments at CERN.
When friend/filmmaker Steve Elkins told me that he had acquired two weeks of access to CERN for filming his new documentary, I blurted out that I wanted to go. "The more the better!" he said. He seemed excited about having a few thoughtful people along with him. He specifically mentioned the prospect of spending the end of each evening in some Geneva apartment with bottles of wine, waxing philosophical about what we had seen that day. Two other people, David Marks and Becky Calinski would also be joining Steve. For one week all four of us had one of the most unique science adventures that anyone could imagine.
What I've written here is a long description of my experience at CERN couched in my informed biases and concluding with a personal opinion about what I took from CERN and what I see as its very worthwhile purpose.
To think of science as an object of inquiry instead of the instrument of inquiry seems vaguely disrespectful — or even boring — to many people. A respectful and exciting attitude toward science, so it goes, keeps science at arm's length in exchange for a focus on its progressive technological achievements and its discovered wonders. An exception to this tradition can be found in the knowledge that is derived from analytic philosophy. Some laypersons I've met know a little bit about something that was once unproblematically called "the scientific method" and can name the ways it differs from, say, the religious method or the tea leaf method (though when pressed to describe what the sciences have in common that is not also shared by carpentry, animal husbandry or admiralty law they display the standard innocence.) Others, more schooled in the analytic tradition can talk about confirmation theory, demarcation criteria, underdetermination, Hempel's raven paradox and Goodman's grue. That may be a good place to start, but is not, in my opinion, a good place to get stuck. The social/historical dimension of science has more bearing on the actual activity of working scientists - and therefore the products of scientific labor - than analytic philosophy can get at. Analytic philosophy's emphasis on method detracts, I feel, from the exciting creative, human element that is essential to the best scientific activity. I saw CERN as an opportunity to get a rare (very rare) layman's firsthand look at the frontiers of research, unbrokered by science journalism, PR mills or the rational reconstructions that constitute the "received view" of science. It was a chance to see high-end science close up. Being at CERN gave me an opportunity to watch cutting-edge researchers move, talk, order food in the cafeteria, complain about the furniture and get excited about the experiments they were constructing. It gave me the opportunity to watch the most important element of the scientific enterprise - the human being
Experimental philosophy has come a long way since Robert Boyle's vacuum pump. The great debate between Boyle and Thomas Hobbes that played out in the Royal Society in the 17th century set natural philosophy on its path as a fundamentally experimental enterprise. Boyle argued that if one wanted to know, for example, what air is - what it does - then it would be reasonable to create an apparatus capable of removing air from its environment and then watch what happens to an animal or a flame that has been put in that environment. Hobbes, on the other hand, believed that experimentation was flawed on several counts. He argued that experiments were not public enough to yield consent the way philosophical arguments were. And he argued that man-made experimental apparatuses were defeasible because by admitting them a role in our observations we would be observing phenomenon tainted by the theoretical assumptions embedded in the experimental apparatus.
That researchers can learn anything about the natural world by constructing the most unnatural environments imaginable strikes no one as counterintuitive in the 21st century. The particle detectors at CERN are humanity's crowning achievement in this once-contested activity. There is nothing more unnatural than a particle collider and nothing more designed than a high-energy physics experiment. But by designing, constructing and operating these hybrids of fact and art we are able to partition, isolate and sterilize portions of the natural world in order to find out how these portions presumably behave when they are unpartitioned, unsterilized and in their natural, undesigned environments. The philosophical leap of the imagination that gave traction to artifact-laden experimental philosophy in the 17th century is profound, but its profundity seems sadly hidden from our contemporary intuitions. For most of us, constructing elaborate devices for conducting experiments seems like a no-brainer. What a terrible insult to the brain of Boyle; or maybe it's only an insult to the brains of the folk who think it's a no-brainer.
This brings me directly to the part of CERN that I am most excited about. According to everyone we talked with at CERN, its present purpose is to "find" the Higgs particle. The word "find" was universally used. No one told us that the purpose of the CERN experiments was to find out whether or not there is a Higgs particle, although in the end, that's exactly what they're doing at CERN. The experiments are being conducted with an optimistic confidence. No one we spoke with at CERN is optimistically confident that the Higgs particle will not be found. As one CERN physicist says in a video that plays in the CERN Microcosm exhibit, "If it turns out that there is no Higgs particle, that will mean that we knew absolutely nothing." (I'm using my memory to paraphrase here, but the "absolutely nothing" part is verbatim.)
No one at CERN is excited about finding out that they knew absolutely nothing. No one told us, "I'm very excited to find out that everything I am trained to understand is wrong and that no one will fund any further research for which I am qualified!" But such is the risk of conducting crucial experiments like the one at CERN. With this in mind, the question that excites someone like me is this: How will researchers know when they have finally not discovered the Higgs particle?" Or to put it more accurately, how will researchers know that they have failed to discover a Higgs particle because there isn't one, as opposed to having failed to discover it because the experiments were just not accurate enough or because funding ran out just a little too soon or because the agreed-upon conceptual experimental cutoff point had been too optimistic?
This isn't an unfair question to ask. How null result experiments end is a fascinating part of controversy studies. They do not end in accordance with some scientific algorithm. They end in fights. Proving a negative is messy business. This is the point where the creative human element in science bares itself with no pretensions to be method-driven. This is when Karl Popper's name is resurrected in armchair philosophy circles and popular science articles. This is when career-savvy researchers quickly issue press releases announcing the death of the Higgs, thereby influencing public opinion (and by extension, funding) before the scientific community has been able to reach a consensus on the matter. This is when a few strategically placed keynote addresses by high-profile physicists can intimidate young researchers who do not want their careers stuck on the back end of a dying paradigm. When both sides have had their time in the ring, when funding councils decide to finally cut off funding for the Higgs search, and after all the dust has settled and the wounds have been dressed, new science textbooks will report the historical episode as "The CERN experiments showed..." and very likely hundreds of seasoned physicists will age and die thinking, "Bullshit!"
Of course this scenario assumes a null result in the experiment. There is the possibility (the likely possibility, according to the CERN researchers we interviewed and spoke with) that the Higgs particle will be sighted. Proving a positive is less messy than proving a negative. But I personally find the positive result to be less exciting. I see the situation as being similar to the Michelson-Morley experiment. In 1887 Albert Michelson and Edward Morley attempted to measure the absolute speed at which Earth was moving through the luminiferous aether. Their experiment returned no detectable "aether drift." Had their interferometer returned a positive result then we'd know the speed at which the earth moved through the aether. Yay. But with the null result something even more fascinating and wonderful happened. Aether became extinct as a concept and the most important parts of physics had to be rethought and rewritten. Or as CERN physicist Peter Jacobs told me, "The Michelson-Morley experiments changed everything!" In fact, the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiments gave us CERN.
My Introduction to CERN.
However, if the CERN experiments fail to discover a Higgs particle as discussed above (but not mentioned in the film) then holy crap. CERN will have then discovered something that has a profound bearing on the mythic questions that the Particle exhibit advertises. I found this paradox amusing; CERN has the potential of breathing life into those questions, but only if it fails at finding what it's looking for. This is not something that is easily advertised to the public.
Another thing that struck me about the Particles advertisement: The story that the film tells (Big Bang, etc.) is a recursive scientific narrative and thus runs the risk of needing revision as our scientific knowledge grows. In this particular narrative, chapter one tells of everything that happened in the universe leading up to CERN. Chapter two tells us what CERN is up to today. Chapter three is yet to be written. But when the events which are to compose chapter three happen, it may turn out that chapter one has to be completely overhauled, chapter two deleted, and chapter three put in place of chapter two. The new, revised narrative will still have only two chapters (and a third unwritten one) and the upheaval that just happened will be omitted from the story all together. It will seem as seamless and as confident as the present version seems. In fact, the present version is itself already a revised version that seamlessly conceals its predecessors. This tickled me.
A third thing that amused me watching the Particle Exhibit film was how the whole environment, including we the audience, was reminiscent of a familiar scene in futuristic sci-fi movies. We've all seen the kind of scene I have in mind. A schoolteacher and a group of children are on a field trip to a museum in the future. Usually all of the schoolchildren are dressed in the same futuristic outfit. They are all standing before a large (often transparent) screen and on the screen is playing a film, or a hologram, which is narrating to the children their own history -- where they came from, what they are, etc. The way these sci-fi films portray it, there is something Big Brother-ish about the presentation. And in fact what we the audience know, which the school children and the teacher do not know, is that the story which Big Brother is telling them is (a) not true, and (b) rife with ideology. But being products of their own time, no one watching the hologram is aware of the extent to which it is a vehicle for ideology. This was an amusing observation because I, being a product of my own time, watched the Particle Exhibit having no idea how accurate its contents would be to my posterity, or the extent to which its story was ideology-laden, or even if it was at all. I got to experience first hand how those sci-fi school children are feeling. Or at least the ones who are pestered by meta-cognition.
On our tram ride home the four of us exchanged our impressions of the Particles Exhibit. I voiced my curmudgeonly opinion that the grand questions theme was a little dishonest and, even if naively honest, irrelevant. The questions written on the entryway are indeed universally important human questions, I said, and their answers serve a deeply mythic, important human purpose. But, I continued, the finding of a Higgs particle has no bearing on the status of those questions with respect to how those questions are actually experienced by the people who are the questions' audience (everyone). I described the quest for the Higgs particle as "mopping up" the minutia of a story that was already well-entrenched in the human psyche and doing its job there. The mythic dimension of the story doesn't need a Higgs, thank you very much. (My friends understood that "myth" does not imply "untrue.") I was surprised to find that one of our party disagreed on a very personal level. She said that the search for the Higgs particle was deeply important to her for precisely the reasons written on the entry wall — because it would answer, for her, ultimate questions which would help provide a deeper sense of meaning and assuage precisely the kind of existential anxiety that results from being without a firm answer to the question "Where did we come from?" For her, this was more than a hobby or an intellectual exercise. It was almost spiritual. I'm paraphrasing her, but the general gist is all there.
Day Two - CMS
Our first day of filming and interviewing at CERN brought us to one of the four detectors: theCMS detector. CMS is the acronym for Compact Muon Solenoid. The CMS detector was one of three detectors that I would visit on my portion of this trip to CERN. If you think of the visitor center (and the Particles exhibit) as being 6 o-clock then the CMS detector is at 12 o-clock. This meant that we had to drive across the French countryside to get to it. Our contact person/driver was Fermilab's Kathryn Grim. Kathryn writes for Symmetry magazine and edits its blog. She's also the US. LHC Communications contact. She was basically our contact for everything we did at CERN. Kathryn wasn't used to driving people around the French boondocks and so we drove in circles for a little while but it was fun. And beautiful. Part of our drive took us through the French commune of Ferney-Voltaire. This is where Voltaire wrote Candide. I personally found it exciting and ironic to be so close to the place where Pangloss and Martin were created. I would eventually encounter examples of Pangloss and Martin in my conversations at CERN. I'll return to Voltaire later.
When we arrived at CMS each of us was given a small portable radiation detector. This was just a precautionary procedure. We were told more than once that the detectors are housed in an architecture that shields them from a lot of the sun's radiation and that in fact we were less exposed to radiation walking around the detectors than we would be on the surface of the earth. We grabbed hard-hats and were led through doors, past eye scanners, down tunnels and an elevator until we reached the room that housed the massive CMS detector. The ring is closed for maintenance and so the detectors are, of course, not functioning. This was a perfect opportunity for Steve to film them. This monster was asleep and dozens of Lilliputians were climbing on scaffolding around it with tools and various instruments. Its bright red and gold colors were truly impressive. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.
We were given just about full run of the place. We were allowed to go all the places that had "No Visitors!" signs posted. Heavens, I could have even climbed up the detector if I hadn't minded getting promptly expelled. I wandered down passages, up stairs and behind computer banks. There were all sorts of doodads and whirligigs. I even saw a few gizmos and a splendid stainless steel widget. What struck me about this monster was the unfathomable engineering and manufacturing that went into making all of its components fit. Fit is a big deal. Take any three cubic feet of the detector and look at it close and you'll find an impossible amount of engineering artistry. One of our guides, Peter Jacobs, told me that the CERN facility took over 500 man-years to build, including design, manufacturing, construction and assembly. (I would later have this impressive statistic deflated by a clever friend who reminded me that 500 man-years is just 500 men working for one year.) Also of interest (to me) was his nuanced explanation of how the cost of the project was impossible to determine since different contributing countries calculate their accounting in incommensurable ways. When we were finished filming we headed back to the CERN center and had some food at the CERN cafeteria - which by the way was a pretty awesome cafeteria.
Ben and Steve Have Eyes Made at Them For Buying Beer
A word about the CERN cafeteria. We would often end up at the cafeteria after a day of shooting. We would usually eat and then sit around having beers until we felt like hauling our equipment to the tram for the ride back to our apartment. On one late afternoon as I approached the French-speaking cashier she eyed me with my beer and made a play-acting gesture that meant something like, "Tssk tssk! You're drinking at this hour?" and then rung me up. It was about 4 PM. I laughed and went on my way. A half-hour later I returned for another beer and she did the same thing. I thought, "She doesn't recognize me. She doesn't realize she's already played that joke on me." I tipped her and went on my way. But then it got weird. The following day the same thing happened. I walked to the register, her eyes narrowed, her eyebrow raised and with half a smile she made that sound that means "Shame shame shame!" and then rung me up. I got back to the table and told Steve. "You gotta come with me next time I buy a beer and check out the cashier! Two days in a row she keeps comically shaming me for buying a beer." Steve was into it. He came up with me and bought a beer. We brought it to her and sure enough! She wags her finger, looks at her watch and then rings me up with a smile. When it's Steve's turn she does the same thing to him. We were flummoxed. We couldn't figure out what it meant, but that didn't keep us from drinking. That day we had a whole cafeteria platter full of empty beer bottles by the time we left.
The next time I went to buy a beer our girl wasn't working any of the registers and so we had to go to a different girl. And sure enough! As soon as Steve and I approached the register the new girl looked at us and shook her head and pointed to her watch. "What?" I thought, "Has the whole world gone mad?" But this girl spoke English and she said to us, "No alcohol between 2PM and 6PM." And sure enough, as we put our beers back in the cooler there was a sign right on the door - in English - that said no alcohol between 2PM and 6PM. That first girl had allowed Steve and me to drink to our hearts desire even though it was against CERN policy. What a sweetheart! I'm glad I tipped her well each time. Sometimes it pays to be oblivious.
Day three - ATLAS
ATLAS is the acronym for A Toroidal LHC Apparatus. The ATLAS detector is located at 6-oclock on the CERN ring and so we didn't need to do any cross-country driving to get to it. Kathryn took us through the security gates and introduced us to ATLAS physicist Steve Goldfarb in the ATLAS control room. Goldfarb is a really down-to-earth guy with a quick wit and a good sense of humor. He also sings in a blues band that has online videos of blues songs about bosons and muons and other particles. Goldfarb showed us around the ATLAS behemoth. Steve got some shots and then we headed back to the control room to do an interview with Goldfarb.
During the interview, Steve probed Goldfarb with questions about his personal relationship to the physics he was doing at CERN. Although Steve has the footage of Goldfarb's actual responses I'll just have to use my memory here. Goldfarb's personal reasons for being at CERN are just that - personal. He never talked about life's ultimate questions or any of that stuff. He did particle physics at CERN out of a deep, personal fascination with physics (having once, in his youth, thought he would be fascinated with chemistry but found it really really boring.) Hearing Goldfarb talk about physics one gets the sense that here's a person who truly wonders at the beauty and simplicity of certain equations and experiments. He seems to have an eye for these kind of things. There was one hallway on the way to the ATLAS collider that he made a big deal about. "You gotta see this tunnel!" he said, all excited. And indeed! It was a really cool tunnel - aesthetically. Later I overheard him talking to another ATLAS worker who was telling Goldfarb that the plan was to hang CERN promotional posters in that tunnel. Goldfarb politely expressed his "mixed feelings" about essentially ruining the aesthetic charm of that particular tunnel. Good for him!
I was unflinchingly attentive to every word that Goldfarb said in his interview. But I was particularly keen on one part specifically: when he explained to us what CERN meant for the public. Sure CERN serves physicists, but what's in it for the rest of us? You know, the ones who paid for it. This was the same sort of question that Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg tried to answer before Congress regarding the proposed superconductor-supercollider under construction in Texas during the Clinton administration. Weinberg wasn't able to answer it convincingly. Or rather, his answers were the kind that would appeal to physicists, but not members of Congress, much less the average taxpayer. Some have said that Weinberg's inability to give a persuasive answer was a manifestation of a vestigial pride - a holdover from the Cold War days when physics was king and physicists didn't have to justify themselves to anyone. Various organized movements for the public understanding of science in the United States and Great Britain were kicked into overdrive by unhappy researchers in response to the public's cold reception to the superconductor-supercollider.
For Want of a Nail...
I was very interested in how Goldfarb would answer this question. He answered it by telling a story. He said that he was first faced with this question during a presentation he was giving at a school (I think he said it was a high school.) He said that when the question was first posed to him it left him speechless. He just didn't know how to answer it. So, said Goldfarb, he went home and did some research so that next time he was asked the question he would have a good answer. What kind of answer did his research provide? The Trickle Down rationale: every well-funded, large-scale research program always produces surprise technological contingencies from which the public benefits. It's a well-known story that in its most well-worn version draws from the 1960's space program. Goldfarb didn't need to use the space program as an example because CERN already had its own example; the World Wide Web. More specifically, as Goldfarb explained, a British computer scientist at CERN developed hypertext in 1990, allowing online content to be easily accessible by fellow researchers through browser programs. Anyone would have to agree that CERN's claim to the world wide web — and its trickle-down, the internet — trumps the pocket calculators and anti-gravity ink pens that used to be the trickle-down zingers the space program trickle-down folk used to brag about.
However, a clever hagiographer can make everything from cellphones to hybrid automobiles, and the Internet, fit into the space program's trickle-down legacy. All one needs to do is work backward, in stages, from some piece of publicly useful technology (civilian GPS, for instance) to a program that birthed its essential components (the 1970's Defense Navigation Satellite System program) and then identify a technological precondition that facilitated that program. And then repeat the process until you reach the space program - or even the development of the first steam locomotive if you're ambitious enough. It's kind of like tracing the influences of any contemporary pop song back to Scott Joplin.
But even in cases where the trickle-down story requires no clever hagiography — like the case of Goldfarb's more direct hypertext example — there are, as I see it, two or three problems with most trickle-down stories. The first and most important is this: when it comes to justifying public spending, the trickle-down from a high-energy physics experiment is fine. But even better would be the trickle-down from a research program that itself benefitted the rest of us. Suppose the money and manpower used for CERN was instead being used to deliberately create new reusable energy sources. Not only would the trickle-down technologies from such a program be the same as always, but we'd get the extra bonus of having the source of the trickle itself be a tremendous advantage to all of us. Goldfarb is right; trickle-down always happens. Therefore the situation Goldfarb was really being asked to justify is why this particular source of trickle-down is worth our money rather than some other, more publicly useful source.
There's something else about trickle-down stories that bothers me as a justification for research. Trickle-down stories are always just a bit too wonderful. The reason trickle-down stories are usually constructed by "tracing back" is precisely so the story-teller has control over what technology the story terminates at. If trickle-down stories were constructed by "tracing forward" from their research source, then less savory technologies would show up in the genealogy. Goldfarb made the good point that no one can anticipate what kind of technologies might develop and trickle down from the CERN program. And Goldfarb is excited about the surprises in store for us as a result of CERN. "Who knows?" he said, "Maybe a cure for cancer! One never can know."
Yes, perhaps a cure for cancer. And also perhaps some new, powerful weapons technology. Advocates of research trickle-down neither surmise the darker possible outcomes of research or bother tracing any existing controversial technology backwards to it's trickle source. Trickle-down stories always terminate at something wonderful and universally loved. You will seldom hear a trickle-down story that terminates with heroin needles, wiretapping, chemical warfare agents, industrial waste or armor piercing ammunition, even though each of these can be "traced back" to some research program or other. These controversial trickle-downs are never attributed to the scientific research that inadvertently enabled them; rather they are typically attributed to humans putting technology to dubious ends. Re-enter Voltaire:
In Candide, Voltaire has Martin and Candide observing the sinking of a ship commandeered by a Dutch pirate.
"This proves that crime is sometimes punished," Candide said to Martin. "That black-hearted Dutch Captain has met the fate he deserved." "Yes," said Martin, "but did all the passengers on his ship have to perish with him? God punished that scoundrel, but the devil drowned the others."
Most folk I know treat science the same way Martin treats God: credited for justice but not culpable for injustice. If the fruits of scientific labor are subsequently used to destroy poliovirus it seems natural to credit its obliteration to science. If the fruits of scientific labor are used to obliterate Nagasaki it gets tricky. We then become adept little sociologists eager to identify the political mechanisms that actually delivered the bomb. It wasn't science that destroyed the population of Nagasaki, it was Truman. It was Potsdam. But by this reasoning the same could be said of the polio vaccine. It wasn't science we ought to credit for the obliteration of poliovirus. It was the World Health Organization. It was Roosevelt. It was UNICEF. We tend to evaluate science asymmetrically; crediting it for the good and not crediting it for the bad, depending on what we personally see as good or bad. And in the case of unanticipated trickle-down, where the motives of the researchers have no bearing on the accidental technological terminus, the asymmetry is underwritten purely by our opinion of the technological terminus.
This asymmetry played out notably in the 1995 Enola Gay Exhibition at the Smithsonian Natural Air and Space Museum. World War 2 veterans complained that the bomb was being portrayed as responsible for the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima instead of being praised as the triumphant scientific technology that ended the war. Some younger admirers of science and technology, however, were comfortable accepting the horror angle, but unwilling to attach "science" to the story. This demonstrated two distinct rhetorical strategies for accommodating the atomic bomb in scientistic homilies. The old-school strategy pointed to the bomb as a scientific success story. The new-school strategy severed science's relationship to Nagasaki and Hiroshima by inserting the social brokering mechanisms. In both cases it was the dignity of science that was being preserved, though by incompatible strategies.
There is no place that cognitive dissonance is more at home than in the social psychology. But when these two strategies are used simultaneously by a single individual it gets weird. My personal opinion is that science either ought to be credited for both the wonderful and the dark, or science should be considered responsible for neither. This means either speculating both the wonderful and the dark unintended consequences of CERN research, or speculating neither. An even better strategy would be to situate science within the complex network of activities and institutions in cases of both wonderful and controversial technologies, rather than emphasizing science's role for the wonderful and de-emphasizing it for the controversial. I think that treating science the way Martin treats God says more about our culture's relationship with science than it does about science itself. In cultural anthropological terms, the asymmetrical way we hold science accountable is a strong indicator that it occupies the sacred space in our culture. I believe that a secular attitude toward science is cultivated by approaching it as an object that one acquires knowledge about, not as the instrument through which one acquires knowledge. The same is true of religion.
Maybe there's no good, fiscal answer to, "What's in CERN for the rest of us?" I can't think of one offhand. The price tag of CERN doesn't really bother me personally. Does it bother you? (For a good time try Googling "CERN" and "pint of beer".) Goldfarb doesn't do work at CERN because of the trickle-down, and he doesn't claim to. He's in it for the rght reasons, which are personal and heartfelt. If you were to ask me "What fiscal value is in it for the rest of us?" I'd have to give something like Goldfarb's original answer: "I really don't know."
Day Four - ALICE
ALICE is the acronym for A Large Ion Collider Experiment. Kathryn Grim drove us out to ALICE on our third day at CERN where we met our guide, physicist Peter Jacobs. After a brief but very clear and impressive explanation of what ALICE does, Jacobs took us down into the cavern. ALICE's two big doors were open so we could see inside the collider -- or at least the parts one can see into when the doors are open. Jacobs hung around with us as Steve got footage of ALICE. I was able to talk a little bit with Jacobs, picking his brain about the engineering, cost, and construction. He had been at ALICE almost since the beginning of construction.
Jacobs had a very clear way of explaining the physics of ALICE to a layman like me, so I asked him if he could explain something to me about the history of the aether. Specifically, I wanted him to tell me, in layman's terms, what had "happened" to the aether between the 17th and 19th centuries when by that time it had accrued enough substance to be detectable -- if real. How had it gone from being the incorporeal "substance" of More, Bruno and Kepler to being something with location, extension, penetrability - something that one could build a machine to detect? I suspected the answer involved aether slowly accruing properties necessary for theory. But I wanted to know what a cutting-edge, articulate physicist could tell me.
Jacobs was completely frank. "I have no idea," he said. "We don't study that stuff and nobody talks about it." When Jacobs said "Nobody talks about it" he didn't mean that it was hush hush. He just meant that it's not a topic for lectures and symposia. "And why should we?" Jacobs asked. "I mean, we're looking for the truth. What's the point of learning past error?"
I asked him, "Do you think it's because the history of science is a history of error that physicists aren't interested in it?"
"I didn't say we weren't interested in it. I said we don't talk about it. We don't read about it."
Jacobs continued. He mentioned Thomas Kuhn. He told me that in college he read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and pretty much thought it was an okay way to look at the history of science. He wasn't gung-ho about Kuhn. I got the impression that he was just a bemused observer. He knew who Kuhn was, and he recognized that my follow-up question was in Kuhn's territory. He made the good point that physics history wasn't what real physicists study. Physics history is something that someone like me would read. (That's why I have no idea how to run the world's most advanced particle collider like Peter Jacobs does.)
Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) was a physicist at Harvard who became an historian of science with a distinctive philosophical perspective. He was famous for, among other more controversial things, claiming that natural scientists are typically unknowledgeable about the history of their own craft and that this ignorance is institutionalized by the process by which scientists become trained in their field at university. More accurately, he observed that natural scientists are often knowledgeable of their own history but only as far back as the point where their own present model or "paradigm" became consensus. (Kuhn coined the now ubiquitous term "paradigm shift.") Learning the nuances of historical detail any further back serves no educational purpose. According to Kuhn, there are two types of histories of science. There is the kind of history that one finds in the opening chapters of survey course science textbooks; this is the kind of "history of chemistry" or "history of particle physics" that a freshman chemist or physicist learns. Then there is the kind of history written by historians in history departments. This is the kind of history that scientists typically do not learn. These two types of histories are very different in their structure and subtext, and are institutionally separated by university departments. Kuhn argued that exposure to one or the other of these two versions of science history will result in significantly different views on the nature of scientific inquiry. He observed that there are important functional reasons why scientists are taught a truncated history of their own discipline. Kuhn talks about the role of textbook history of science:
"Textbooks thus begin by truncating the scientist’s sense of his discipline’s history and then proceed to supply a substitute for what they have eliminated. Characteristically, textbooks of science contain just a bit of history, either in an introductory chapter or, more often, in scattered references to the great lessons of an earlier age. From such references both students and professionals come to feel like participants in a long-standing historical tradition. Yet, the textbook derived tradition in which scientists come to sense their participation is one that, in fact, never existed. For reasons that are both obvious and highly functional, science textbooks (and too many of the older histories of science) refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as contributions to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems. Partly by selection and partly by distortion, the scientists of earlier ages are implicitly represented as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific. No wonder that textbooks and the historical tradition they imply have to be rewritten after each scientific revolution. And no wonder that, as they are rewritten, science once again comes to seem largely cumulative."
Jacobs has a good point though, right? Whether or not Kuhn is correct in his description of how science textbook histories are constantly rewritten so that the present state of inquiry always appears to be progressing toward the same goal that we have always been pursuing (or even if this is still true fifty years after Kuhn's book), it still stands to reason that a contemporary chemist has little to gain studying phlogisten theory or a contemporary physicist the luminiferous aether. Not everyone agrees, though. Ernst Mach, for instance, had a different opinion:
"They that know the entire course of the development of science, will, as a matter of course, judge more freely and more correctly of the significance of any present scientific movement than they, who, limited in their views to the age in which their own lives have been spent, contemplate merely the momentary trend that the course of intellectual events takes at the present moment."
Who's right? Mach was certainly wrong about other things. I don't think that Jacobs' answer indicts him in any way. He's not a historian, he's a cutting-edge researcher. Would a fuller knowledge of his discipline's history help him be a better researcher? Would a longshoreman be a better wharfie if he studied the history of longshormen? Probably not. Would a politician be a better leader if he studied the history of politics? Maybe. Would a Supreme Court Justice make a better arbiter if she studied the history of Constitutional law? Yes. Where do scientists fit in this spectrum?
Day Five -- Joe Incandela
On day five we met with CMS spokesman Joe Incandela. Incandela is a first-rate physicist and the first American to be chosen as a CERN spokesperson. Incandela, we all observed, carried himself with uncontestable authority. Everything from his diction to his eye contact said, "I'm the man." And we all agreed. Joe Incandela is the man.
Incandela is at CERN from UC Santa Barbara and began his two-year term as CMS spokesperson just about a week before we arrived to interview him. When Steve explained to him the gist of his film Incandela's eyes lit up. He had a lot to say about the history of attempts to explain the world, and Steve's film, by addressing various ancient and modern ways which humans have approached this issue, seemed right up his alley. In particular, as I will describe below, Incandela had articulate opinions about the different answers mankind has arrived at depending on how dedicated we have been to observation.
Incandela began as an art student. Both of his parents had been artists and he attended the Art Institute of Chicago from age 6 to 18. He was exhibiting art at the age of 12. Incandela had become enchanted with chemistry through the influence of pioneer glassblowers Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino. But like Goldfarb, Incandela found chemistry really really boring. "People who go into this [particle physics] field are very idealistic, " said Incandela, "contributing to something timeless - like art." I thought it was interesting that two of the researchers we interviewed, Goldfarb and Incandela, both had a pronounced artistic side to them -- and both had the exact same story concerning their misgivings about chemistry. Hmm.
Incandela was asked to give a brief history of the particle physics that led to the research at CERN. He began, "That goes back to the end of the 1800s," the same period of time to which Peter Jacobs confessed knowing little prior. Beginning with Maxwell, Incandela gave a whirlwind history up through quantum mechanics (which he described as "fundamentally foreign to our intuitions") and the eleven dimensional mathematics of string theory developed to quantize gravity. "What I learn here is not going away," he said. "This is the fundamental stuff, looking for the genetic code of the universe. We're looking for simplicity, a single field, we're looking for an origin. But the darned thing is, we don't see any evidence in the places we look."
"We're already thinking about redesigning our experiments in case no Higgs appears," he said. This remark touched on my interest as to when researchers will know that they haven't found a Higgs because there isn't a Higgs. Incandela answered it with confidence, "The LHC energies are so great that there will be no excuse as to why [no Higgs was spotted]. If we don't [find a Higgs particle] the impact is very large. Our whole viewpoint will have to be adjusted."
Incandela gave us a rundown of some of the impressive features of CERN: 178 institutions and 40 countries working together, 80 million channels of electronics, single nanosecond timing, CMS weighing in at twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower, video conferencing and communication, "Everything works," he said. "I've never seen an accelerator this beautiful."
After talking about the $80 to $90 million dollar annual electric bill for CERN, Incandela addressed the practical application of CERN research. His take on it was similar to Goldfarb's take - namely that CERN research eventuates in trickle down; what Incandela called "spinoffs."
"We're not producing something that we can immediately market," said Incandela, "By looking for these laws we're finding things that may eventually impact technology, but we don't know what these technologies will be. What we're doing now is way out on a limb, and we have no idea what would be the applications. It may be 500 years. I don't know."
He, like Goldfarb, mentioned the World Wide Web as a spinoff from CERN research, but then said, "These are some of the things that we use to help justify what we're doing financially, but fundamentally we're interested in the fundamentals."
When asked to elaborate on his earlier remarks about experiment and observation, Incandela seemed (to me anyway) to be on turf for which he had a strong conviction. He mentioned two of his influences in the history of science, Bertrand Russell and Shmuel Sambursky. He mentioned Sambursky's book Physical Thought from the Pre-Socratics to the Quantum Physicists. He didn't mention what Russell he had read. Russell wrote a few books on the topic in the first quarter of the 20th century - The ABC of Atoms (1923), The ABC of Relativity (1925) and more notably, The Analysis of Matter (1927). Sambursky's book was written in 1975.
Incandela's exposure to the history of science and his exposure to the activity of working scientists has given him the conviction that science has always been at its best, has "gotten it right ... when the theorists paid attention to the experimentalists." He observed that the Stoics had great ideas because they were close observers. But eventually the Aristotelians came along and got carried away with the beauty and complexity of their models - the theory - and lost sight of the physical world through observation. "The Aristotelians thought that their theories were right just by their beauty," he said.
Clearly Incandela fell on the experimenters' side. He held Farraday as the paradigm observer, and contrasted Farraday by referencing Paul Dirac's opinion that theorists should prefer beautiful equations even if uglier ones yield closer agreement with experimental data. I got the impression that Incandela's historical examples were meant to serve as lessons for contemporary work in particle physics. He seemed to be implying that even today, the theorists do not always pay attention to the experimenters as much as they should. "I had a Nobel prizewinner ask me, 'Why do you call these discoveries? We theorists have already predicted them,' And I said, 'You predicted 1,000 of our last three discoveries!'"
Incandela had no animosity for theory; he just wanted theory and experiment to sit in proper relation to each other. Several times in the interview Incandela deferred to the theorists on questions that he felt unqualified to answer. I wanted to press Incandela to elaborate on his historical remarks about the Aristotelians' devotion to theory at the expense of observation. By my lights, the most well-known Aristotelians were the Ptolemaic astronomers, who were very close observers in one very important sense. By observing the motions of the heavenly bodies for close to thirteen centuries, they had devised a model that was able to predict the positions of the planets with remarkable accuracy. However, the Ptolemaic model had accrued a list of functional entities - the epicycle, the equant and the deferent - which in retrospect (and only in retrospect) are revealed to have been necessities constructed to account for observed planetary motion given the Aristotelian geocentric/geostatic frame of reference. The point, however, is that the "observation" of these entities was indirect. Their observation was constituted by the accuracy of predictions in which their existence was stipulated. The Ptolemaics had never seen an equant. They only knew that there was an equant, what it was like and what it did because the planets followed the equant's rules so well for how they had modeled it. Sound circular? Well that's because it kinda is. Indirect observation is always theory-laden (well, maybe). Sometimes even what passes for direct observation is too. The sun moving across the sky seemed to be a direct observation for thousands of years. It wasn't until a heliocentric cosmology took hold that we were then able to recognize that our direct observation of the moving sun had, all along, been a model-specific inference.
"We don't see it. We create images, we create displays and so forth. But we don't know exactly what an electron looks like. We only know these things indirectly. We only know them because the rules are followed so well for what we've developed and how we've modeled things. Fundamentally they may be different. We don't even care. The point is, we're trying to find the rules or a model that will describe the phenomenon that we observe in the experimental sense." [emphasis mine]
It wasn't clear to me if Incandela was an Instrumentalist. His remarks sounded like an Instrumentalist's evaluation but not enough was said to give a definitive answer. Would Incandela have asserted that the functionality of the Ptolemaic model constituted its truth? Was the equant not observed in Incandela's sense of the word? How much of Incandela's concept of observation is tied to experiment (something the Ptolemaics were of course unable to perform on the planets)? Had we more time with him I would have especially liked to ask him these things.
Goethe said that we see only what we know. In an important sense, what we can observe - both in experiments and in nature - is dependent on what theory we are operating with, either consciously or unconsciously. And it is very difficult to tell the extent to which our operating theory is encoded in the apparatus with which our experimental observations are made. The theory-ladenness of observation was a point made academically respectable by Norwood Russell Hanson in his 1958 work Patterns of Discovery and then again later in Perception and Discovery (1969). But before Hanson there was Einstein who, in 1926, told Heisenberg, "But on principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe." A year later, reflecting on what Einstein had told him, Heisenberg said that once the uncertainty principle is derived from quantum mechanics, "experiments are unlikely to produce situations that do not accord with quantum mechanics." With these considerations in mind, it becomes salient to ask Incandela how he goes about designing an experiment that can be expected to yield observations that do not accord with a Higgs-dependent theory. I'm confident that it can be done, but I'd like to know more abut the theory-laden caveats that someone like Incandela has to consider when designing a crucial experiment of such magnitude.
When the word "scientist" was first coined by the Reverend William Whewell in 1833, science was not yet a profession. His neologism was part of a 19th century effort to professionalize natural philosophy, which up until then had been an activity of leisure performed under patronage or by the independently wealthy, and certainly with no public funding. In the United States the mid-century classical university was producing lawyers, doctors and ministers but no scientists. The professionalization of science in the United States arguably began when Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which gave engineering and agriculture studies a place in the American university. In 1866 there were only 300 men in the United States with engineering degrees. By 1870 that number jumped to 866. By the end of the century over 21,000. Science was becoming a respectable academic discipline whose participants could receive their diplomas on the same day, and maybe even in the same building, as literature majors. By the mid 20th century, leading intellectual figures like James Conant and Vannevar Bush would be at home pushing for an American democratic technocracy. Seventy years later, the scientist is an iconic image in American culture and enjoys a very high degree of educational dignity and a respected public profile. But just as science was one of the last disciplines to be recognized by institutional education in the United States, it is also one of the last occupations to be demythologized.
There is a curious belief at work in the minds of many Americans when it comes to thinking about science. The belief is that the only salient attitudinal spectrum with regard to science is the spectrum whose one end is occupied by science lovers who relish the progress attained by it, and whose other end by those who resent science and are skeptical of what passes for knowledge because, I don't know, it contradicts holy scripture or their political view on global warming or whatever. These two ends correspond roughly to the "scientifically literate" and the "scientifically ignorant." These two sorts of people are certainly out there. You can watch them battle it out on Internet forums. But I don't think they constitute an opposition worth taking seriously. I think a more important spectrum is one that runs orthogonally to the one I just mentioned and is composed mostly of people who pass as scientifically literate. It is the spectrum whose one end is occupied by the scientifically literate who believe that scientific progress is a result of its unique method of inquiry, and whose other end is occupied by the scientifically literate who believe that scientific progress is a result of social organization, creativity and stabbing around in the dark. As benign as this difference may seem on the surface, the difference between these two types of literate people is indicative of a more serious systemic cultural pathology than the difference exemplified in the fist-fights between, say, biologists and Biblical creationists.
The first view, the method view, is the conventional folk-wisdom held by American laypersons who are scientifically literate. This view accounts for the remarkable success of science by identifying certain reliability-inducing methods that are not shared with all the rest of culture, and then by explaining how (or more commonly, by asserting that) these methods gear in to certain features of the world. This view is sometimes called the positivist view or the "received view" of science. The scientifically literate layman calls it "how science works." This view — no matter how fully articulated — is, to me, as simplistic a view of science as Schoolhouse Rock's "I'm Just A Bill" is of the mechanisms of Congressional legislation. It's good for kids, if it kick-starts them into a scientific career or motivates them to learn the grown-up version of how science really gets stuff done. But it's not good for adults who find themselves in need of being responsible participants in a democratic process. In fact, the method view of science has a tendency to saddle its carrier with the opinion that scientific activity ought to be immune from the democratic process all together. The method-driven view of science cultivates the attitude that science should be allowed self-governance. Peer review, ethics councils and other internal checks and balances are all that are needed to keep science on a true course — because, after all, it's fundamentally guided by the rails of rationality and method. The only need for external accountability, so the attitude goes, is if scientific research becomes dangerous or corrupt, if it goes off its rails. But exactly how the public is supposed to recognize when science goes off the rails is not clear given the fact that the science-friendly public receives a Thomas the Tank Engine version of what science is. And how the public is supposed to influence the trajectory of research is not clear, since the political mechanisms that would facilitate public regulation are not established the way they are, for instance, for regulating the actions of public officials, educational curriculum and industrial waste disposal. The method view has bestowed institutionalized science with such an astonishing degree of autonomy that it's no wonder scientists have been in no hurry to dislodge it from the public imagination. I had one distinguished neuroscientist tell me that he didn't care that science fans had a mythological understanding of the workings of science so long as it kept them from being anti-science. And who can blame him?
The autonomy that the public has passively conferred upon science research has handed the governance of knowledge acquisition over to market interests. In the last 30 years, as science research began to migrate from the university to private research parks, scientific research trajectories became more and more directed by corporate interests and the issuance of research funding grants became more and more contingent on the viable widget. While this has had an overall effect of keeping scientific productivity more relevant to the human condition, there is I feel something unsettling about having research itself guided by the ominous, and often itself misguided wash of market forces. The "human condition," in terms of corporate interests, is often a construct designed to move product. And while that may (stress may) be adequate competitive guidance for producing better laundry detergents and customer service, Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Pfizer know that this market environment is irrelevant to a scientific program whose research is allowed to freely wander alongside the idiosyncratic curiosities of professional high-tech hobbyists. This may have something to do with why the United States is not one of the twenty countries that are CERN Member States. (The United States' status as of this writing is "observer state.") High-energy physics is one of the only research fields that still enjoys a good deal of the internally-driven autonomy that it earned during the second World War and maintained during the ensuing Cold War era. If physics research were directed by active public accountability or by the same market pressures that steer many trajectories in biological or chemical research there would be no way physicists could justify spending billions of dollars chasing a unified field theory or the measurement of the top quark mass. As funding streams are being diverted from physics toward biochemical (read: pharmaceutical) research, there is something very romantic and old-fashioned about the fact that CERN exists.
There have been several scholarly attempts to explain the existence of religion in Darwinian terms, but there haven't been any attempts — as far as I know — to explain the existence of science in Darwinian terms. An armchair explanation might assert that scientific knowledge confers adaptive advantage on the knowledge-bearers. That sounds like a nice opening sentence to a paragraph that has yet to be persuasively written. When this elegant idea is unpacked, it is not at all clear how an investigation into non-Euclidean geometries or the physical location of the origin of the universe could be kicked off by Darwinian pressures that confer a reproductive advantage to the homo sapiens involved in the transgenerational effort. Viewed this way, arcane particle research resembles game-playing more than it does opposable thumbs. Even though physics autonomy has allowed research to wander deeper and deeper along trajectories that have no relevance to anyone but the researchers themselves, it is still fascinating to see what the researchers at CERN find relevant to themselves. CERN stands as a unique international symbol of pure human curiosity; a highly technical and abstracted version of the same thing that motivates gossip, the wish to be invisible and "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." For me, the most captivating experiment being done at CERN is the one which allows us to discover what responsible, cooperative, curious, intelligent homo sapiens do with their resources if allowed to do anything they wish. For me, this is worth my money. Unlike some of the more commercially viable research programs, the program at CERN is fundamentally human in both its procedures and its goals. CERN is what people do because they are curious and excited about what they do and what they know. CERN is what people do who want to contribute to something timeless, like art. CERN is as deeply human as playing chess or hunting for Easter eggs or writing a poem. While that description may not sound grounded enough to satisfy the mythological misconceptions of American science cheerleaders, I find that what little it suffers from lacking as a rationally-grounded purpose or as an adaptive survival enhancer is more than made up for simply by being true.
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