A diagram showing interactions between particles according to the Standard Model by TriTertButoxy, Public Domain
Scientist at CERN‘S Large Hadron Collider announced today that a particle had been discovered with Higgs boson like properties. As a Psychiatrist this is completely out of my field but there is one aspect to this which I find very interesting and more understandable. With only a high school level of education in physics, I understand that the leading model in Physics – the Standard Model – predicts the existence of a subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson. Tremendous energies are required in order to detect this particle in experiments set up at the Large Hadron Collider. The experimental results announced suggest that the Standard Model’s prediction about the Higgs boson particle are likely to be correct. Further confirmation is needed.
So why am I writing about it here? Well the answer lies in a book by Thomas Kuhn ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ – a landmark work on the philosophy of science. Kuhn suggested that science progresses through both ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ science. In revolutionary science there is a paradigm change resulting from a Hegelian dialectical between the established paradigm and the soon-to-be-established-as-leading paradigm. The new paradigm results from the discovery of an anomaly in the established paradigm.
‘Do you think that we’re now on the threshold of a new revolution in modern physics?’
to which Professor Al-Khalili replies
‘I think it is……….it really does give us a genuine opportunity to start answering questions that have been unanswered for decades’
I have reviewed Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ elsewhere (see Appendix) and am also using this as a basis for further exploration of the themes. The above interview got me thinking. Kuhn was interested in the history of science. He described his work as a historiographic analysis. The question is whether or not we can see a scientific revolution in action in an age of social media? – where audit trails are created and cultural changes are quantified by various pieces of software. What would the scientific revolution look like in such an age?
In one social media forum, the following picture was shared (see here). This showed a list of Twitter trends that included #Higgs #CERN and LHC. A quick check of Twitter trends showed significant variation by country as might be expected but #higgs trended in New Zealand and the Netherlands whilst Happy4th trended in the USA. This cursory glance at the trends shows that a science based theme has made a significant impact in a number of countries although other items are also competing for news attention. The discovery was also widely reported in the mainstream media.
This could be a spike in media attention but there could also be a number of other findings that follow on from these results and will similarly provide media interest. There have been many efforts to communicate these findings to the public, all of which have been made in a very small amount of time.
The important question though is whether or not this is a scientific revolution. Todays results were made possible by the powerful Large Hadron Collider. The LHC is possibly one of the most costly scientific experiments in history. If this is causing a revolution then two factors must be playing a role – resources and technology. In other words for a revolution to occur these two factors might be an important part of the picture. There are numerous example from history where this is not so by today’s standards e.g Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion and gravitation. However in comparison with his peers Newton may well have had more resources at his disposal.
There is one caveat to all of this though. Is this truly a revolution in the sense that Kuhn meant it. In Kuhn’s meaning of the term this has to be a battle between paradigms resulting from an anomaly. In the media at least the spin on this story is that expensive scientific equipment has provided results which are consistent with the predictions of the standard model.
Surely if this is correct then according to Kuhn we are seeing the confirmation of normal science in action.
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