Roughan’s ready theory

by Gareth on July 8, 2012

John Roughan has a theory. The New Zealand Herald‘s columnist and leader writer waxes lyrical this week about the discovery of the Higgs boson bringing excitement back to science — science having been made dull by being “dominated by environmentalism” for too long. Others may wish to make fun of Roughan’s somewhat incoherent take on particle physics:

The glimpse of the ‘Higgs boson’, or something like it, allows minds to boggle on the existence of “dark matter” and the possibility there really is a dimension to the world that is beyond human sensory perception.

Who knows where that knowledge will lead? Next they will work out how to control the particle, then they will remove it to enable things – people – to travel at the speed necessary to explore the galaxy.

But bring it on, I say. Let’s get the Roughan-Higgs drive patented. That’s a new technology that could really drive the economic transformation of New Zealand. Truly ground-breaking stuff from a political columnist.

Roughan’s real theory, sadly, is much more mundane, and amounts to little more than an extended and ill-educated rant against environmentalism.

After a barely coherent run through his incomprehension about humanity’s ability to have planetary scale impacts, he concludes thus:

Science has been dominated by environmentalism for too long. What it gained in political attention and research grants has come at a cost to its power to excite us. If a subatomic particle has opened a door to phenomena we can barely comprehend, science will be wonderful again.

What the hell does Roughan mean by “science”? I presume he’s talking about his perception of what science is, but his column makes it obvious that he has a sadly limited view of what that might be. His own boredom with science (but not geology apparently, which might speak to us in our dreams) — including all the many subjects that yield to scientific investigation that have little or nothing to do with the environment or environmentalism in any shape or form — tells us nothing about what science is or might be.

Being interested in “science” means being curious about everything. Doing science means being systematic in exploring the limits of our knowledge. It’s endlessly fascinating and exciting. You don’t need to be a particle physicist to have fun. And we should not let the ignorant trample on reality. Truthiness in service of politics is never a pretty sight. Which brings me to my1 quote of the day.

We need evidence-based decision-making; not decision-based evidence-making.
-Raj Sherman, leader of the Alberta Liberals

Unfortunately for Roughan’s rough and ready and right-wing world view, the evidence suggests that we have no option but to accept we’re stuffing up the planet, and must decide to do something rather urgently to stop it. We’re all environmentalists now. In the real world, we have no choice.

PS: Here’s a much more nuanced take on what we can learn from the discovery of the Higgs boson.

[My theory…]

  1. And Planet 3.0′s. []

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

bill July 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm

But bring it on, I say. Let’s get the Roughan-Higgs drive patented. That’s a new technology that could really drive the economic transformation of New Zealand.

Rent-seeker! Right, andy?

I read this when if first appeared in the Hot Tweets, and it hurt my brain. I got as far as galactic matter transportation – as you point out, this is the immediate logical corollary of the confirmation of the Higgs Field, of course – then skipped on a bit and read the amazing stuff about science having been somehow damaged by the impact of scientist saying things that environmentalists might agree with – for the grant money; wonder how long (and where) he researched that tid-bit? – and then decided life’s too short, etc….

Unimpressive, barely-coherent stuff. Chum, in other words.

(PS: This is the best simple explanation of the boson I’ve seen, courtesy of The Guardian’s catering staff.)

Dappledwater July 9, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Sooooo……science would be more exciting for Roughan if scientists didn’t keep reminding him we’re trashing the planet? Is that his point?

andyS July 10, 2012 at 8:45 am

I think that is a reasonable summary, yes.
It might also explain, partially, why the numbers of students wanting to study science is tailing off.

andyS July 9, 2012 at 4:38 pm

The interesting thing about this is that Peter Higgs is getting all the credit for having a boson named after him.

However, as the Hindustan Times point out, the word Boson was named after the brilliant Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose who had the word Boson named after him by Paul Dirac.

(Bose-Einstein statistics and condensate are two other fields that he lends his name to)

Bose seems to be one of those unfortunates whose work spawned many Nobel Prize winners but his own work was never acknowledged to the same degree

Mike Palin July 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm

On the shoulders of giants….

bill July 9, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Unfortunate for Bose – it’s like poor old Ub Iwerks all over again! ‘The race is not to the swift’ etc..

Surely someone’s going to get the Nobel out of this, assuming it remains confirmed – can you imagine the level of scrutiny? – but who, exactly?

cyclone July 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Would the category be Physics or Chemistry?

Utter drivel from Roughan, where do the Herald dredge up these idiots?

Thomas July 10, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Compared to the physics of the standard model and the Higgs mechanism, climate science is rather palpable and the evidence visible to all… yet a persistent group of society simply does not get it.

So how can the then hope that the morass of flawed comments about the Higgs discovery in pretty much all the popular science reporting it is going to lead us to some comprehension on the later…

Bose’s large contribution to Science aside, he did not discover the Higgs mechanism. That honor goes to Englert–Brout–Higgs–Guralnik–Hagen–Kibble, of which Higgs got most of the credit in the end. And yes, the Higgs particle is a Boson which means it belongs to a class of particles named in honor of Bose who’s work precedes that of the suggestion of the Higgs field and mechanism.

Back to the Higgs: The particle is not involved with giving mass to anything nor is it around anywhere here or in nature to do this as it is highly unstable and decays extremely quickly. The Higgs particle is merely an exitation of the Higgs field and one needs excessive amounts of energy to create it. Creating it (the exitation or particle of the Higgs field) in the LHC simply gives evidence of the Higgs field and this what the story is really all about.

And we can rest assured that neither the LHC nor the Higgs field will deliver “Star Trek” technology to humanity. And we will have to look after the one planet we have forever to survive. This realization is what is so hard to swallow for the John Ruhans of this world who would love to see environmentalism disappear – and be permitted to toss this planet and its ecosystem in pursuit of fun, personal enrichment and consumption – because they can zip to other worlds at will when this one is broken. But sorry John Ruhan, not so in your life time and not in any of your descendants lives either. Our only hope to have a liveable planet for your grandchildren is to get to grips with the ecological limitations to our civilization and soon so!

andyS July 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

At least CERN gave us the World Wide Web via Tim Berners-Lee.

His book “Weaving the Web” is a good read.
Also, I recommend Manjit Kumar’s “Quantum” for an accessible introduction to Quantum Mechanics and the history thereof.

bill July 10, 2012 at 3:15 pm

I’m unsurprised that this is reported badly – hell, I don’t get it; the field exists constantly but the relevant particles only pop into existence for nano-seconds (OK, technically much less than that, this is the vernacular ‘nano-second’!), and the field appeared a few nano-seconds after the Big Bang in order to… round out the mathematics of the Universe? (insert some variation on a Galactic anthropic principle)? Because it did – the universes where it didn’t are still particle soup, and nobody would be around to find the bloody things?

The whole Quantum realm is about as counter-intuitive as anything can be, apart for the macro Relativistic universe, of course. (This is an enduring testimony to the Scientific Method, of course.)

Whereas, as you say, climate changes are perceivable, and the physics/chemistry, while complex, is relatively comprehensible. It’s certainly not hard to grasp ‘natural variations around a rising trend’, or the basic physics of CO2 and H2O trapping outgoing LR, if you’re willing to.

No doubt there’ll be Higgs Deniers – hell, there’s no shortage of people who are smarter than Einstein (and many of those are also AGW Deniers!)

But we won’t hear much about them. It’ll be implicitly accepted that scientists are the ones who know what they’re doing, and only their own peer review process will count.

And, I can assure you, if 97% of Quantum Physicists accept the reality of the boson and the field, that will be the end of that discussion.

(We’ve already seem Hawking smilingly accepting that he’s lost his bet!)

And yet, if Exxon or the Kochs stood to lose billions because of it, I confidently predict the whole world would shortly be gravely entertaining defamatory claims about ‘The Team’, and unbalanced High-School drop-outs would be sending them threatening emails, egged on by online shriekers and tabloid dreck…

Funny, that.

andyS July 10, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Higgs Deniers?

Well I’d be interested in those who may hold different views to that of Peter Higgs, but I doubt that the High Energy Physics community would refer to them as “deniers”..

bill July 10, 2012 at 5:39 pm

{sigh] andy, look up ‘denier’ in the dictionary; tell us how you get on…

andyS July 10, 2012 at 5:46 pm

From Thomas’ article linked above

What do we know about the Higgs field?
Almost nothing
There might be one Higgs field, or there might be several of them, each with its own type of particle (all collectively referred to as “Higgs particles”.)
Or the Higgs field may in fact be an agglomeration or “composite” of several other fields
The only way to know how many Higgs fields there are, whether they are elementary or not, and how they interact with the particles we know and perhaps ones we don’t yet know, is to run an experiment: the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC.

In the context of the above, Bill, please explain what a “Higgs Denier’ is.

bill July 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I simply mean, Dear andy, that there will doubtlessly be those who deny the reality of the Higgs field, however much we may or may not know about it (‘may not’, in my case, and pretty-well everything, except it’s what gives particles mass, IIRC) just as there are those who deny the Big Bang, and Evolution, and Relativity, and an old Earth, and Carbon Dating, and the Moon Landings… pretty-well anything you can name.

Did you not get my point? Those who are in denial of the new discovery/confirmation – currently hypothetical; I have no idea who they might be, nor am I nominating anyone at all – will be accorded very little media time, and very little attention generally, and it will be almost universally accepted that it’s those who are the acknowledged experts in the field who have the right to determine what are the correct conclusions to draw from the evidence.

As is the case with almost all Science, but this is not so in the case of some other scientific issues we could name, where certain highly influential parties feel there’s a lot at stake for them, and choose to argue the toss with the very Experts they wouldn’t otherwise even consider challenging..

Thomas July 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Yep, the quantum world is wired for sure, but its reality should be evident to anybody using computer, which depends utterly on the underlying quantum effects governing the behavior inside its chips…

For those seeking a deeper understanding the whole Higgs thing, this website by Prof. Srtassler might offer some guidance, especially the FAQ page here which with a bit of luck addresses the very question the readers might have themselves:

And of cause, the web is full of half (or less) baked brains putting forward their very own contrarian theories. ULRs are cheep to register… and in the time of the Internet there is no editor between the wild and the bewilderers and the billions out there trying to angle for a bit of wisdom. And as people are feeling suddenly empowered to become their very own experts (audience and all!) in just about anything they get the urge to become very opinionated about, we have no-doubt entered the age of the amateur “experts”… and the future of humanity might become beholden to a debate held by minds and egos with huge opinions over matters they know so little in fact about that they don’t even see the need to listen to the experts….

Mark Twain said it so well:”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” ;-)

andyS July 10, 2012 at 4:48 pm

ULRs are cheep to register…


bill July 10, 2012 at 5:40 pm

How much cheaper do you want them to be?

Thomas July 10, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Oops, my right ring finger exceeded the speed of the left middle finger when hitting the keys……. never mind what ULRs are… hope its not a ‘three letter word’ in somebodies vocab ;-)

bill July 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm

It’s a Land Rover and Jaguar Dealership in Victoria over here – certainly not cheap to register! This may have been andy’s intention, but until Thomas’s last comment I’d never even registered the mis-spelling.

bill July 10, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Ooh, I still reckon what you don’t know can get you into quite a bit of trouble… ‘Honestly, officer, I didn’t know I couldn’t bring my Codeine-based painkillers into Greece’… ;-)

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