Jul 2012

Could Higgs help us find life elsewhere?


4th of July 2012, a date which will live in infamy, at least for the physicists amongst us. It was the day when the ‘God particle’ gained its independence from the realm of the unknown and could no longer be called the god-damn particle! I have been wondering if the discovery of the Higgs Boson could help astrobiologists find life elsewhere…

Chances are that you’ve already heard about the announcement of the observation of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. In fact, you might have heard about it so many times on different blogs and news stories that you could be forgiven if you thought Apple was launching a new revolutionary device called Higgs Boson!

The story started in the 1960s when Peter Higgs and others proposed the mechanism by which elementary particles such as quarks (that make up neutrons and protons) gain mass by interacting with the Higgs field that permeated all space soon after the Big Bang and continues to do so today. According to the standard model, all quantum fields have a fundamental particle associated with them, and so it was expected that Higgs field should also be associated with a particle – the Higgs particle.

As a test for the standard model, over many years scientists have attempted to find the particle that mediated the Higgs mechanism but it remained elusive, earning it the nickname the ‘goddamn particle’ (which for sake of politeness became the God particle, and the name stuck). However, a concerted effort by scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider finally led to its detection which culminated in the announcement of the preliminary results last week. The discovery immediately validated the Standard Model and excluded technicolor theories of particle physics.

We can thank the Higgs particle for making astrobiologists. Without the Higgs, the universe would be a very different place. For one, if we did not have the Higgs particle, all matter that is made of neutrons, protons and electrons would not be able to form chemical bonds. In other words: no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no life on Earth, no humans, no astrobiologists.

We can also thank the Higgs particle for making astrobiology possible. As far as we can tell, the Higgs field is the same everywhere in the universe and so the masses imparted to the elementary particles by the field should also be the same throughout the universe. The strength of chemical bonds between atoms on Mars or in the Andromeda galaxy should be the same as on Earth and so the thermodynamics of chemical reactions should be universal. Hence, we can expect many of the physical and chemical processes that led to the origin and evolution of life on Earth to act in the same fashion elsewhere in the universe – making our search for Earth-like extraterrestrial life a reasonable proposition.

As is often the case with fundamental research, one of the main outcomes of the successful search for the Higgs particle is that it satisfies mankind’s curiosity about how the universe works. While there have been some technological spin-offs from CERN and the LHC, as with theories such as general relativity and electromagnetism, we will probably need to wait a few decades to see what other tangible benefits could come out of this discovery.

There are some great posts and excellent videos that help explain the Higgs Boson and what its discovery means for the standard model of particle physics. Here are some of my favourites:

The work at the LHC is not over. The teams involved with the Higgs detection still have to submit their papers for peer-review. We are reasonably sure that it is a Higgs boson but still unsure if it is the Higgs boson. So after collecting some more data to better analyse the detection in the next couple of months, the LHC will be turned off for upgrades so that it can reach its full potential in about 2 years time and aid in discovering other fundamental particles and phenomenon. Who knows maybe the black holes it creates for a few fleeting moments might lead to understanding the nature of dark matter and dark energy. And don’t forget the Nobel Prize committee still needs to sort out who will get the prize ;-)

In the meantime, here are 3 things that I think we could pick up from the voyage of Higgs discovery that could accelerate our search for life elsewhere: Global Collaboration, Coopetition and Share the Science.


Think globally, act locally

The LHC is a marvellous instrument and although it has many sibling particle accelerators, LHC is in some ways unique because of the sheer number of people involved. More than 8000 scientists and engineers from over 100 nations have contributed to the mammoth scientific instrument located on the border of France and Switzerland.

Beyond the insights about how the universe operates, perhaps one of CERN’s lasting legacy would be its ability to have harmoniously brought together so many people across geographical and socio-economic boundaries. Remember it was this need to communicate between so many parties spread over many time-zones that led to the development of the progenitor of the world wide web at CERN.

From a project management point of view, the LHC is a remarkable achievement. At approximately $10 billion, the LHC is neither the biggest nor the most expensive scientific projects undertaken (the Apollo program costed $24 billion and the International Space Station is budgeted at $150 billion) but the LHC is an example where a relatively small community of particle physicists united and convinced partners all over the world to contribute to one of the biggest experiments undertaken. Upcoming astronomy projects such as the Square Kilometre Array based in South Africa and Australia and the next generation optical telescopes like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope share LHC’s vision of international partnerships and potential for significant scientific breakthroughs. Is this large-scale collaborative style a trend for science in the 21st century?

For some reason no biology or Earth and planetary science projects of this scale come to mind… (if you know of some, let us know by posting a comment). We did have the Human Genome Project in the 1990s but that too was focused only on efforts at a handful of US, European and Japanese institutions. We do have some inter-planetary missions on the drawing boards that involve a handful of different nations but nothing so visionary and immense a challenge that requires scientists and engineers around the world to contribute. Perhaps this is where astrobiology could lead the way… to make a living astrobiologists in particular have to talk to scientists of all sorts.  Goals of astrobiology have wide appeal all over the planet – across all ages and across all cultures. Finding out about the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe seems to strike a chord with most, if not all, Homo sapiens.

When it comes to inspiring the next generation, it is usually the big projects that enthuse society to the level needed to ensure a steady supply of graduate students! Behind the Higgs announcement last week, there were more than a 1000 PhDs involved over the years – well, someone has to do the grunge work in the basement!

How about a grand mission to oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa to search of life on the planet? Folks at NASA and ESA are working on these projects and making steady progress but we probably don’t have the social or political determination to achieve this goal within the next decade. It is rather easy to give reasons why such an endeavour could be too expensive or that we are not technologically ready for… but perhaps we need to tap into the intellectual and financial resources of our planet as a whole rather than two or three countries to make such projects achievable within our own lifetimes.

That brings me to another facet about the LHC and the Higgs bosons: Coopetition.


Collaboration and Competition = Coopetition

In the media briefing following the announcement last week, CERN’s Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer used the term Coopetition to describe the effectiveness of groups collaborating but also competing at the same time. In the case of the Higgs particle, teams at the ATLAS and CMS experiments both had a common goal and so shared knowledge openly but they were always trying to have a detection before the other group. This scenario is not unheard of within large scientific groups.

The two competing teams who were using supernovae to trace the expansion history of the universe were led by Brian Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize with Adam Riess. Photo by Nick Suntzeff.

The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating was a coopetition effort too. The  High-Z Supernova Search team and Supernova Cosmology Project team were in a friendly battle to be the first to determine the likelihood of an accelerating universe using data from the redshift of Type Ia supernovae. This added a sense of urgency for team members and probably accelerated the discovery – excuse the pun!

As a collateral benefit, internal competition between groups also means the data is scrutinised more rigorously to avoid the embarrassment of later realising that the team missed a signal or made a silly mistake along the way. Note that excluding a few management folks at the top, neither the CMS nor the ATLAS group members knew of the result of the other team’s analysis until the very public announcement last week.

Astrobiologists are no strangers to collaborations. Indeed, given the breadth of the field we are often dependent on external collaborators for their expertise. I am hopeful that as our community grows, we will have more opportunities to coopete.

For the Higgs boson, a 5-sigma result from each of the independent CMS and ATLAS experiments significantly increased our confidence in the results. Some astrobiology experiments can have more at stake, and if we were ever to detect novel life on Earth or beyond, we’d want to be doubly sure that we see the same result from two independent experiments.

Coopetition it seems is a win-win formula.


Share the science not just the passion

Main auditorium at CERN on 4 July 2012

The announcement of the Higgs detection was made in Geneva to staff and students at CERN and broadcast live to an audience of particle physicists at a conference in Melbourne, Australia.It was also open to a world-wide audience on the internet.

Something that surprised me was that the announcement was not a public outreach talk. Despite the immense public interest in the project, the organisers chose – I repeat, chose – to do a proper science talk. Two hour-long talks, with the slides full of data.

As the ATLAS experiments leader Fabiola Gianotti said while explaining one of her key slides: “The data is shown by… the data points.”

Example of a slide from the announcement seminar.

There  has been some dismay about the use of the Comic Sans font and I admit the aesthetics of the slides could have been better but the simplicity of the presentation did not detract from the science contained in the presentation. It satisfied the needs of the particle physics audience and if anything only increased the interest amongst the media.

Following the announcement it has been wonderful to see so many journalists and bloggers attempting to actually communicate the science in their stories rather than just the hype surrounding the story.

Of course the PR team at CERN was ready for the event and spread the message to all corners the globe. They were ready with the media briefings, the interviews and the artworks for mass consumption. They had even used the tried and tested strategy of leaking a video a day before! However, the LHC is a scientific experiment and it was great to see the scientists prioritise presentation of the results first to the scientific community and then the tax-payer.

There have been examples in the past, some in the astrobiology community but also in other fields of research which have public interest, where key scientific results have been announced by presidents or to journalists prior to the results having been presented to other scientists. This has the potential to undermine the scientific process and as history has shown the hype can backfire big time if other scientists find flaws in the original analysis.

It can sometimes be difficult to contain results within a veil of secrecy or it may well be irresponsible to withhold the results from the public. With peer-review at some publishing houses taking months or years, it may not always be in the best interests of the parties involved to await a formal publication. However, unless it is discovery of an asteroid about to hit the Earth in the next 24 hours, let’s pledge to present preliminary results to open conferences and where possible, post manuscripts on open access pre-print servers prior to public announcements. (Physicists have been using services such as arXiv very successfully but also see why it might not have yet caught on among biologists).

It is important for scientists to recognise the contributions of the tax-payer by keeping them informed of our progress and sharing our passion with them but we do need to be cautious in announcing our findings too early.

And if you think the man or woman on the street is only interested in the concluding summary slide, think again. Over the last week I have been asked more questions about what it means to have a 5-sigma result than about what is a boson!

Hip hip hooray ;-)

Adi Posted by
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